MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Author John Grisham has created a literary empire writing complex legal thrillers. His stories often revolve around attorneys. Some are valiant, some are crooked, some are downright sleazy. Grisham is a lawyer by training himself, and he uses that background to inject his stories with authenticity. It's helped power his 18 books up the bestsellers list.
Two years ago, after finishing a novel, he was planning to take a break from writing over the holidays when he came across a story in the New York Times that stopped him cold and got him thinking about a new project and a career departure. That project is a new book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, and it's John Grisham's first work of nonfiction.
What he'd seen that December morning in the New York Times was an obituary.
Mr. JOHN GRISHAM (Author): Ron Williamson, freed from death row, dies at the age of 51. And he and I are the same age, as I read the obituary. He grew up in a small town in Oklahoma. I grew up in a small town, Arkansas. We both dreamed of playing Major League Baseball, and the story just went on and on. I was captivated by the small town, the baseball, the injustice, the wrongful conviction, the near execution, the exoneration and the tragic death five years after he was released. You know, he was very young when he died. And I thought to myself, never in my most creative moment could I come up with a story like this.
NORRIS: Could you paint a picture of Ron Williamson for us?
Mr. GRISHAM: He was a fairly normal, small town sports hero, middle class family, devout, religious, very cocky, confident athlete. Many people in that part of Oklahoma thought he was going to be the next Mickey Mantle, and he certainly believed it. But he started some bad habits when he was a teenager, beer drinking, a lot of pot, he liked girls. And when he got to the minor leagues, that's the perfect place for someone who's looking for fun, and he wrecked his career with injuries and booze and drugs and women and at the age of 25 began showing some signs of mental illness.
He was mentally ill. He was bipolar, later diagnosed as being severely depressed and even schizophrenic. He was a very troubled man.
NORRIS: And he wound up on trial for the murder of Debra Sue Carter along with a friend of his, Dennis Fritz. How is it that the two of them wound up as the primary suspects in that case?
Mr. GRISHAM: I'm not sure I answer that question in the book. I mean, I tried to find the answer for 18 months, why the cops picked these two guys out and pursued them. The obvious suspect was the last person seen alive with the victim, a man who knew the victim and thus could gain access without kicking in the door, a man who had argued with the victim the night she was murdered and on and on. It's just - the crime should've been very easy to solve quickly.
Instead, the police went a different direction. They convinced themselves early on that Ron Williamson was their killer. They put blinders on and never tried to find, you know, the real killer.
Five years went by. They couldn't solve the crime, and pressure mounted, and finally after five years, they pieced together enough bogus evidence to make an arrest. Once they got Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz in jail - and they just pieced together this really flimsy case.
In Ron's case, when he went to trial, after a year in the county jail, which would drive anybody insane, he had not been properly treated for over 14 months. He was not getting the medications he needed, and in the courtroom he was at times a madman. He would yell and scream at the witnesses who were lying, because they were lying. He knocked over some tables. And in doing all this, he just terrified the jury. And the jury had no problems convicting him and giving him the death penalty.
NORRIS: And he came just within days of actually facing execution?
Mr. GRISHAM: He was a dead man. He was a dead man. After six years. And they put him in a holding cell for 30 days, and he began counting the days. And he got down to day number five, five days to go, when a federal judge in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Judge Frank Seay, stopped the execution and ordered a complete review of the case. And that saved Ron's life.
NORRIS: And he was exonerated. But there's no happy ending to this story. Things didn't much improve for him after he left prison.
Mr. GRISHAM: He was a deeply scarred man. And he had received some decent treatment the last three or four years in prison, in a state mental hospital. He found a couple of doctors who took care of him. He got out in 1999 and he was - the state never apologized and never admitted it had made a mistake. In fact, the state did just the opposite. There were still threats that Ron and Dennis might be arrested again and put on trial and put back in prison, and it was a horrifying time for them.
Ron began drinking again heavily. He would stop, join AA, join a church, try to stop drinking. He was tormented by his alcoholism. And in 2000, he and Dennis filed a massive lawsuit against all the bad guys in the story. They settled a couple years later and they had plenty of money.
But Ron still could not maintain stability. He kept drinking, and he finally in the fall of 2004, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and he died quickly.
And Ron, once he realized he was going to die, sort of embraced the idea of death. He was ready to go on and he made peace with God and he was ready to go.
NORRIS: You note that - you make the point in the end, in your author's note, that everyone pays a price when these things happen, and you note in particular that people of Ada, Oklahoma, face a tangible cost in that the city has now twice had to raise property taxes.
Mr. GRISHAM: Yeah.
NORRIS: It's an interesting detail.
Mr. GRISHAM: Yeah. Part of the lawsuit that was settled in I think 2003, the city of Ada coughed a half a million bucks from a rainy day reserve as part of its share of this big settlement, and in the past two years, the city has had to raise property taxes to replenish that account. And so all the good citizens of Ada are still paying for this bogus prosecution.
NORRIS: John Grisham, thanks so much for talking to us. It's been a pleasure.
Mr. GRISHAM: The pleasure is mine. Thank you.
NORRIS: John Grisham's latest book is called The Innocent Man. You can read an excerpt from the book at our Web site, NPR.org.