ADA — It’s not everyday that a small town in the U.S. receives international recognition. In fact, when compared to the rest of the world, Ada, Oklahoma is simply a sleepy southern town with traditional values and people. However, author and former lawyer John Grisham has brought to light a sordid piece of Ada’s history that may cause his readers across the globe to question the legal system in Oklahoma.
“My goal was not to expose the mistakes made by the Ada Police Department, but simply to tell the story of Ron Williamson,” Grisham said about his latest work, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town,” his first nonfiction piece. The book focuses on the life of Ron Williamson and his battle against the state of Oklahoma for being falsely accused for the murder of Debra Sue Carter. “Obviously, in telling that story, I talk a lot about the police and their mistakes. I felt a lot of anger toward the police and the authorities as I was writing the book.”
In a speech he gave Sept. 14 at the University of Virginia’s School of Law, Grisham explained how he stumbled upon Williamson’s obituary in the New York Times and was instantly fascinated with his story and the circumstances surrounding his life.
“This book started off innocently enough. I wasn’t looking for a story,” Grisham said. “It was December 2004-December 9, 2004, to be exact, and I was flipping through the New York Times in a hurry one morning and I came to the obituaries. The lead obituary, the big obituary on Dec. 9, 2004, was a picture of Ron Williamson. He was standing in court, the day he was exonerated, April 15, 1999, and he had died. It took him five years to drink himself to death. On this day, he was walking out of prison after 12 years. As he was about to be released, he had this odd look on his face. He was sort of smug and confused and obviously very elated. The headline read ‘Ronald Williamson freed from death row, dies at the age of 51.’ He and I were the same age. The first paragraph read ‘Ronald Keith Williamson, who left his small town in Oklahoma to become a major league baseball player, but was later sent to death row and came within five days of being executed for a murder he did not commit, died on Sunday, in a nursing home near Tulsa. The cause was cirrhosis of the liver.’”
“It gave his sister’s name, and the opening paragraph and photograph were compelling enough but I read the entire obituary, and when I got finished with it, I knew it had the clear makings of a much longer story.”
Grisham said after reading the obituary he immediately contacted Williamson’s sister, Annette, who resides in Tulsa, and told her he wanted to write the story.
“It took about ten minutes to convince her that it wasn’t a crank phone call, and I really wanted to write this story,” he said. “Within a couple of hours, we had a deal on the phone and I plunged into this story that I still am losing sleep over.”
In “The Innocent Man,” Grisham details how Pontotoc County and state officials prosecuted Williamson with an array of impractical evidence consisting of jailhouse snitches, hair samples and “dream” confessions, and how they allowed the real killer to remain free.
“The police were untrained and just basically corrupt,” he said. “The last person seen alive with the victim was never treated seriously as a suspect and there was all sorts of suspicion around him. He was a local thug, the cops knew him well, and the victim actually knew him, too. They went to high school together, but the cops didn’t pursue him, and we found out 15 years later why. At the time he was selling drugs with a lot of the local cops and they covered up for the guy.”
Grisham said he was surprised at the tactics police and authorities reverted to and there was no hope for a fair trial for Williamson or Dennis Fritz.
“There was never any hope of a fair trial for Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz in Ada, Oklahoma, because they were completely innocent,” he said. “If the police had investigated Glen Gore the day after the murder, he would have been quickly convicted and sent to prison many, many years ago. In fact, he would probably now be dead from a lethal injection.”
Grisham also detailed in his speech last month that Gore asked to meet with him while he was at McAlester gathering information.
During his time researching and writing “The Innocent Man,” which he began in January 2005 and completed in August 2006, Grisham came into contact with several people who knew Williamson and formed the opinion that his life began to slowly unravel at the age of 25.
“Ron was mentally ill from an early age,” he said. “He was not equipped to handle the end of his baseball dreams, and all the wheels began coming off at the age of 25. I talked to many people who knew Ron, obviously. He was an enigma. At times he was warm-hearted, gregarious, generous to a fault, but he could also be cocky, arrogant, and very demanding.”
Grisham also noted that during his research, he found the state of Oklahoma has used its death penalty statute more than any other state in the nation.
“On a per capita basis, Oklahoma has used its death penalty statutes more than any other state,” he said. “Thus, you would have to say that Oklahoma has more enthusiasm for executing its inmates than other states. However, most deep southern and western states believe strongly in the death penalty, and in that regard Oklahoma is no different.”
“The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town” is set for release tomorrow.