Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Innocent Man, by Grisham

I first dismissed this book because Grisham's fiction has never appealed to me. As an attorney, I've found that my daily working life interferes with the exciting premises I am asked to accept from legal fiction. As a result, I almost made the mistake of skipping _The Innocent Man_. Grisham's first nonfiction work about families in Oklahoma brought together by unfortunate circumstances will shake your faith in the justice system. I've read elsewhere that the Supreme Court at one point almost lost its collegiality because of a split in justices who refused to affirm any death penalty conviction as a matter of principle. This book provides some insight into what the Supreme Court during Thurgood Marshall's time must have been seeing to create that kind of schism.

Grisham begins by with a plot that could have come straight out of _Moneyball_--i.e., a talented kid from the Midwest with a powerful arm gets discovered by the A's and negotiates with prudent management for a decent signing bonus. When the bonus is sufficiently raised, Ron Williamson, brimming with confidence, chooses money/salary over a college education and a scholarship, but when he is injured, his entire life is then spent fighting for a spot in the minors. When the various stints in the minors fail, Ron goes into a destructive spiral and overzealous law enforcement connects him and his friend to a gruesome murder.

I've heard lawyers say that the criminal justice system favors the prosecution because everyone assumes the D.A. only brings cases where it is sure to convict. As a result, it is terribly easy to buy into the paradigm of Eliot Ness cops arresting violent miscreants, and more difficult to imagine a perfect storm of egotistical D.A.s and the forensic specialists who could be biased because they are on the same county or public payroll and work closely with law enforcement.

What was especially stunning to me was how much the prosecution used inherently unreliable hair samples. Even as an attorney, I did not know how unreliable some so-called scientific data was, and this book was a good education for me and exposed bias I did not even know I had. Overall, an excellent book, and one that is sure to make you question the criminal justice system without the typical pointing to race as a factor.

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