Wednesday, February 28, 2007

John Grisham and Ron Williamson versus The Daily Oklahoman

Is the Daily Oklahoman is worst metropolitan daily newspaper in the United States? That always has been my impression (and, after more than ten years in the communications advocacy business, I think maybe I have dealt with every metropolitan daily in the country).

Anyway, I mention this because the newspaper recently published a rather shocking editorial assailing author John Grisham and defending Ponotoc County (Oklahoma) District Attorney William Peterson, despite Peterson's wrongful prosecution of Ron Williamson for capital murder.

First, the editorial:

Closing the book
One side fits all for Grisham

BIG names make for big book sales, which is why a famous author's name is in larger type than the title on a book's cover.

No bigger name in American fiction exists than that of John Grisham. The novelist was the top-selling author of the 1990s, ahead of even Stephen King, with more than 60 million copies sold. So when Grisham's anti-capital punishment zeal needed a new outlet, his name was all that was needed when he turned from fiction and became a journalist.

Except that Grisham doesn't know the first thing about journalism, especially the part about getting the other side of a story.

Grisham's foray into nonfiction centers on Ada. His 2006 book "The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town” is less a piece of reporting than an anti-death penalty polemic. If a movie is made of the book, it will likely be even more so.

That was true of "Dead Man Walking,” which was designed to make us hate the death penalty but in fact showed how a killer's denial of guilt was renounced only because he was made to pay for his crime.

The "hero” of Grisham's story was innocent, although he was convicted of the 1982 rape and murder of Deborah Sue Carter. The book is mainly Ron Williamson's story, but he's not the only character. Another is Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson, who prosecuted Williamson and remains in office.

The side of the story that Grisham refused to tell was Peterson's. In an October 2006 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Joshua Marquis, vice president of the National District Attorneys Association, slammed Grisham's one-sided "reporting.” Peterson himself has started a Web site to tell the story Grisham ignored.

Peterson not only prosecuted Williamson but was among the voices calling for the DNA testing that would exonerate him (it wasn't available at the time of the trial). Marquis noted that the one-sidedness of Grisham's book "feeds the popular perception — nurtured by Hollywood and the news media — that death rows are teeming with wrongfully convicted men who just await DNA testing to set them free.”

Grisham also played loose with the facts. In mail exchanges, Peterson confronted the author over mistakes the prosecutor found in the first few pages of the book. Grisham's flippant reply was that mistakes are "in the nature of nonfiction.”

Yet the book is essentially about mistakes — the mistaken conviction, for starters. Given Grisham's attitude, how long would he last as a reporter at any of the major newspapers whose reviewers gushed over this book?

Here's a fact: No evidence exists that an execution in modern times has taken the life of an innocent man. [blogger's note: Obviously the editorial writer has never heard of Ruben Cantu, Carlos De Luna, Larry Griffith and Cameron Todd Willingham.] Williamson and a co-defendant were set free not despite the system, but because of it. Grisham should stick to fiction, no matter how stale and formulaic his work has become [blogger's note: Oh, really? So the 123 (at least) death row exonerees should be thankful of the wonderful experience they had in awaiting execution for a crime they did not commit? What unadulterated balderdash. Idiots. Dolts. Fools.}

Anyway, a number of people in Oklahoma have read Grisham's book -- and a number of these people are upset, not with Grisham, but rather with the Ponotoc County district attorney for his wrongful prosecution. Here are a couple of their letters in response to the Daily Oklahoman's slanted editorial:

Grisham's book notes DA's failures
Regarding "Closing the book: One side fits all for Grisham” (Our Views, Feb. 18): John Grisham's "The Innocent Man” represents much more than an "anti-capital punishment zeal.” It's the true and documented history of how one man, Ponotoc County District Attorney William Peterson, used his office to take away the freedom of four Oklahomans.

Peterson manipulated the legal system, as Grisham reports, in such a way as to place these four men behind bars — two of them on death row. We have no way of knowing how many more have suffered from Peterson's actions.

Peterson's job is one that requires a serious study of each case brought to him, so justice is properly administered. Grisham's book points out all of Peterson's failures. It also details how a federal judge agreed when he criticized Peterson while overturning the Williamson conviction. Grisham's book should be required reading for all in Peterson's district. No doubt it could be the basis for removing him at the next election.

Bob Huckaby, Oklahoma City

In spite of the system
Regarding "Closing the book: One side fits all for Grisham” (Our Views, Feb. 18): I applaud your efforts to support and defend our system of justice in this state. Your take on the situation leaves me shaking my head, however. I read the book and I'm still a proponent of the death penalty as a just punishment. However, I don't support prosecuting and convicting innocent men and women with shaky, indirect, circumstantial evidence.

My degree is not in journalism, so I can't speak to the merits or motives of John Grisham. I disagree, though, with trying to justify someone spending years on death row and being a mere five days away from lethal injection by saying "he was set free ... because of the system.” No. He was set free in spite of the system. Grisham's book documents (and, I agree, rather loosely), not one but three men and possibly five men who were wrongly convicted and released after years in Oklahoma's most harsh prison setting.

I don't believe "The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town” should be considered as being etched in stone, but my state prosecuted, convicted and then almost killed several innocent men. Zeal is a good thing in law enforcement; railroading is not.

Wade Crews, El Reno


Barbara's Journey Toward Justice said...

What a Great Post I linked it to my blog. Let's not forget this story. A Companion book to The Innocent Man, Journey Toward Justice by Dennis Fritz. True Crime, Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. Journey Toward Justice is a testimony to the Triumph of the human Spirit and is a Memoir. Dennis Fritz was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder after a swift trail. The only thing that saved him from the Death Penalty was a lone vote from a juror. Dennis Fritz was the other Innocent man mentioned in John Grisham's Book. which mainly is about Ronnie Williamson, Dennis Fritz's co-defendant. Both were exonerated after spending 12 years in prison. The real killer was one of the Prosecution's Key Witness. Read about why he went on a special diet of his while in prison, amazing and shocking. Dennis Fritz's Story of unwarranted prosecution and wrongful conviction needs to be heard. Look for his book in book stores or at , Journey Toward Justice by Dennis Fritz, Publisher Seven Locks Press 2006. ..
Read about how he wrote hundreds of letters and appellate briefs in his own defense and immersed himself in an intense study of law. He was a school teacher and a ordinary man whose wife was brutally murdered in 1975 by a deranged 17 year old neighbor. On May 8th 1987, Five years after Debbie Sue Carter's rape and murder he was home with his young daughter and put under arrest, handcuffed and on his way to jail on charges of rape and murder. After 10 years in prison he discovered The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization. With the aid of Barry Scheck and DNA evidence Dennis Fritz was exonerated on April 15,1999 Since then, it has been a long hard road filled with twist and turns and now on his Journey Toward Justice. He never blamed the Lord and solely relied on his faith in God to make it through. He waited for God's time and never gave up.

Please visit me at
My Blog

Anonymous said...

I didn't find Grisham's book to be an attack on the death penalty at all. I was quite captured by the story of Ron Williamson and the fight to free him from his mental prison as well as his actual prison. Although it is hard not to argue the finer points of capital punishment when writing a story that involves it, Grisham doesn't get hung up on it. Yet you have to admit that after knowing how Willamson and Dennis Fritz suffered as a result of a wrongful conviction, most reasonable people would take a second look at doling out a death sentence.

meemee said...

I have just completed "The Innocent Man". I was so appauled by it all. The complete railroading of two innocent men, because they could and because people wanted a conviction. I can't believe these people are still serving the people and still being self righteous! They need to be locked away for 11yrs. Gods punishment on them should be swift. How can anyone in Ada hold their heads up after this and still have Bill Peterson working for them. I will never enter Oklahoma again and not think of Ron and Dennis.

anonymous said...

The Oklahoman retort would be hilariously comical, if it wasn't about such a serious subject.

I just finished "An Innocent Man", and came to research it on the web. As many claims as they care to make about "one sidedness" several things can not, and are not debated;

- There was serious corruption in the police and judicial force
- Ignored, was (what should have been) the main suspect, Glen Gore, because of police corruption
- Innocent men HAVE been put to death, and been exhonerated, post mortem
- Several MILLIONS of DOLLARS were spent by taxpayers for these mistakes, on the Williamson/Fritz case alone

If a "one sided" novel even got the facts half right (and I suspect, the "facts" in the novel are closer to 100%), it would be more than warranted to try to level the playing field for a system that has been so badly messed up, for such a long time.

Kudos to John Grisham. Shame on the Oklahoman, and anyone who tries to defend blatent misuse of authority and power as "casualties of the system".

joni said...

I've just finished the book. I find it unbelievable that the judicial system was so flawed there in Ada.
Had it been some unknown writer vying for distribution, it would never had reached it's present status. Thanks John, too bad you don't take on more non-fiction tasks.

Anonymous said...

Peterson needs to be brought to justice, and swiftly. This arrogant, incompetent, corrupt clown has done more damage and ruined more lives than many of the people he has prosecuted. If the townspeople of Ada and the citizens of OK have one bit of honor and justice, they will put this idiot behind bars to rot for the rest of his life.

Anonymous said...

As like most here, I've just finished "The Innocent Man" with my jaw dropped open in amazement. It reminds me of lynchings. Bill Peterson had to have known he didn't have the right man, especially when he asked for the victim's body to be exhumed 4 years after burial to get "better" prints. Disgusting.

Inv Allan said...

I just finished reading the book Innocent Man. I have been a State Police officer for 24 years. The last ten as a Forensic Investigator primarily working homicide cases. Perhaps I have a little too much pollyanna in me, but I read in disbelief the level of incompetence in the Ada Police and the District Attorney. Frequently prosecutors do not want to know anything but direct corroborating evidence for thier case. But it is the job of the police to uncover all of the facts. A puzzle isn't finished until all of the pieces are in place. Those officers in Ada should be removed from the force and prosecuted for their actions

Gregory said...

Just finished reading Mr. Grisham's Book here in Florence, Italy, where I am enjoying a one-year Sabbatical with my Wife and kids. I was born in Norman, OK but was raised in California. I am proud to be associated with the State of OK, but am thoroughly disgusted and embarrassed by the incompetent Fools supposedly representing Justice in Ada. Please tell me DA Peterson has been removed from a position of any authority! He should be punished while still on this Earth as he will be severly judged upon his death.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading The Innocent Man. I find it rather funny that Peterson is worried about mistakes in a book that may make him look bad but showed no concern for mistakes in a trial that determined a man's life.

Anonymous said...

While reading The Innocent Man, I felt sickened, angry, frustrated and outraged that something like this could happen in this country. The worst thing of all is that there is no justice for Ron Williamson. The people who participated in his systematic mental torture and the ruining of his life will never be prosecuted. Bill Peterson and his cohorts continue to actually be paid for being criminals. Shame on the citizens of Ada for continuing to allow such corruption in their police department and district attorney's office. Thank you to John Grisham for taking on this story and giving it the attention it deserves.

Anonymous said...

The prosecutor and police in Ada, OK certainly know the mistakes and coverup of their investigation. It should be a priority to investigate the DA and all the police involved and bring them to justice for their crimes.

Anonymous said...

I too have just finished "The Innocent Man" and find myself both saddend and sickened by the way things were handled in this case. I strongly disagree with the death penalty and I am fortunate enough to live in a country that does not practice it. In saying that, whether you agree or disagree with the death penalty is not in question, what we need to think about is the "what if factor". Are we not all innocent until proven guilty. After reading this book I have to question this.

Neeraj said...

Yesterday I read the John Grisham book, The Innocent man.
It was first time in my life when I finished the book in 12 hrs (6+6 hrs) and during in 12 hrs I realized the life of 12 year in prison. Thanks John and I am sorry to say that if such things happens to other who are like Ron williamson, then why the system is such a like. I am not in fvour of removing the capital punnishment but I am towards justice that to be pure. Why highest court ignore the case because they dont have time or then dont want to waste the time to save one innocent man. I think if DA was not only person who brought such injustice but the the juror was also behind this cause. I pray for the god no other Dennis Fritz and Ronnie Williamson should have such life in prison without any cause.

Anonymous said...

I have just read An Inocent Man by John Grisham -
You become very close to Ronnie in the book and just wonder at what a waste of a life Ronnie was such a promising young man who nearly made it as a baseball hero but due to his mental illness became a victim of some inept policemen who's inability to sift evidence and not to take a prejudical view of a mentally ill man ended him with a false conviction and death sentence - Also a missmanaged and inhumane prison system nearly finnished him.
I am a foreigner to the US I am British we abolished the death sentance in the 1960's due police mistakes and famous cases of wrongfull conviction.
The terrible murders and rapes of the two young ladies make you weep as much as Ronnies torture but I wonder at that system that is so sure of its self and the reasoning that is behind it.
The arrogance of D.A Petterson and the ineptitude and falsehood of Smith & Rogers is unbelievable lets hope it nevers happens again.
While the motivation of the Police was to solve a crime quickly you cannot believe there ineptitude and in the case of the real killer you just wonder at there motivation not to investigate properly.The prosecuter well he should be removed from public officef for his attitude.

God bless Ronnie, Dennis, Debbie & Denice.

Anonymous said...

Until Ward and Fontenot get out of prison Ada will remain in everyone's minds as that place that railroads its own citizens. Good luck landing a new company or resident anywhere close to Ada until Ada buys its own goodwill.
I'm shocked that the state's largest newspaper would defend a corrupt justice system.

Anonymous said...

Having just finished reading Grisham's The Innocent Man, I feel disgusted and saddened by all the wrongdoings that happened to Ron and Dennis. I went through a lot of emotions during the reading. I felt very drained with helplessness at reading such injustices being done to human beings. I can not believe that Peterson is still in office and I can't believe that any half-brained person would reject and snub Ron and his family after what he was put through for 12 years on Death Row. I am glad Annette left Ada, she is way to good a person, a sister and a Christian for a town full of hypocrites. I think she should leave OK. finally, I don't think that Grisham made any mention of wanting to abolish the death penalty, I think he wants to remind everyone to be careful of convicting someone to the death penalty when they are innocent.
Kudos to you, Mr. Grisham, I loved reading your fiction stories and now I've enjoyed reading this nonfiction story just as much.
As far as Oklahoma is concerned, I don't think that I could ever visit it without thinking about the injustice that Peterson inflicted on Ron and Dennis but mostly to Ron who was struggling with all his mental issues.
The Oklahoma justice system seems to need a very close look altogether, from police departments,to courts, to prisons, etc. hopefully they get this soon so no more innocent lives are ruined.