I strongly recommend John Grisham's book "The Innocent Man," a retelling of one of the most haunting stories in the annals of false confessions. The book tells the story of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, two friends from in and around Ada, Oklahoma, who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Debra Sue Carter in 1988. The evidence against the men included junk science (microscopic hair analysis), jail house snitches, and Williamson's so-called dream confession. Both men were eventually exonerated when DNA evidence linked another man -- Glenn Gore -- to the murder. At one point, Williamson came within 5 days of being executed.
The Grisham book works best as a character study of Williamson, a former minor-league baseball star who like other Oklahoma boys dreamed of being the next Mickey Mantle. Williamson's descent into madness and the toll that drug and alcohol abuse (and prescription drugs) had on his body is harrowing but not quite as harrowing as the way in which the Oklahoma authorities -- both the jails and the courts -- expedited Williamson's demise by ignoring his attorney's numerous pleas that he be housed in a mental health facility. Their callousness no doubt contributed to Williamson's early death in his early fifties.
Grisham's book has had two other salutory effects. First, by writing a book about a false confession case, his book will certainly expose the realities of false confessions to a much larger audience. Second, his book has revived interest in another book, Robert Mayer's excellent "The Dreams of Ada," which recounts the wrongful convictions of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, two other men who also falsely confessed (Ward's was a dream confession) to the same Ada police officers and are still behind bars for a crime they did not commit. Mayer's tale, which reminds us that many wrongful convictions are based on numerous errors -- faulty i.d.'s, false confessions, jailhouse snitches, and junk science (all of them played a role in Fontenot and Ward's case) -- works best as a thorough and detailed deconstruction of a police investigation gone awry and how these mistakes (and the refusal of those in power to admit them) have led to the wrongful convictions of two innocent men. It also provides gripping narrative of the trial strategies of both prosecutors and defense and how difficult it is for jurors to accept the notion that anyone would confess to a crime he or she did not commit. Never mind that the confessions of Ward and Fontenot were inconsistent with each other, got numerous key facts wrong (the method of killing, the place of the killing, who did the killing, etc. etc. etc.) and the fact that their confessions did not lead police to any corroborative evidence. It was the simple "fact" that they confessed that led to their convictions.
In airport terminals and bookstores around the country, Grisham's book is selling like hotcakes. In most displays, a newly released paperback version of Mayer's book, "The Dreams of Ada," is right alongside Grisham's book. Buy them both but read Mayer's book first. The Fontenot and Ward convictions came first and Mayer's book will provide a crucial context in which to evaluate and understand the wrongful convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz.
The release of these two books has led Mark Barrett, an Oklahoma criminal defense attorney whose work (along with Barry Scheck and a host of other fine Oklahoma defense attorneys) helped exonerate Williamson and Fritz to take up the cause of Fontenot and Ward. For more information about their case and what can be done to help these two innocents go to www.wardandfontenot.com