Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Twin failures of justice

In his 1st nonfiction book, Grisham explores a case much like Earl Washington's



Monday, January 8, 2007

John Grisham's best-seller "The Innocent Man" is the true story of an Oklahoma man sent to death row for a rape and murder he did not commit.

Ron Williamson was nearly executed because of fabricated evidence, overly zealous prosecution and less than zealous court-appointed representation.

Even after DNA testing failed to implicate Williamson and incriminated a violent convict, authorities insisted that Williamson could still be guilty and dragged out their investigation before charging the real killer.

It is a sobering account of the fallibility of the justice system and the refusal of authorities to admit or apologize for error and wrongdoing. But Grisham need not have traveled halfway across the country to write it.

Much the same happened to Earl Washington Jr. in Culpeper, not far from Grisham's Charlottesville-area home.

"You have wrongful convictions in every state. You have them all the time," said Grisham, recently reached by telephone. Regrettably, he said, many like Washington do not get an apology, much less compensation.

"Everybody just wants them to go away," he said.

Police had cause to suspect Washington and Williamson.

Williamson was twice acquitted of prior rape charges. Washington hit an elderly woman with a chair. Each man had substance abuse problems. But years later DNA testing -- unavailable when they were convicted -- cleared them and pointed to the real killers.

And afterward, Washington and Williamson would not go away.

Washington was rebuffed in efforts to obtain an apology or compensation for nine years spent on death row. In 2004, he filed a civil-rights suit against officials.

The suit was fought in Charlottesville in April and May. It led to a $2.25 million award after the federal jury ruled that a state police investigator fabricated evidence against Washington that led to the wrongful death sentence.

Williamson, like Washington, was wrongly sentenced to death in Ada, Okla., in part because of an improperly obtained confession.

Grisham wrote in his book: "Had [prosecutor] Bill Peterson, the Ada police, and the state of Oklahoma apologized for the injustice and closed the books on Ron Williamson . . . the authorities would have taken the honorable course and ended a sad story."

"Instead, they got themselves sued."

Williamson and Dennis Fritz, a co-defendant wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the same rape and murder, filed a federal civil-rights suit against authorities that was settled for a reported $5 million.

Washington's civil-rights victory is under appeal, so it is unknown whether he will ever collect a cent.

Grisham said he didn't know about Washington's "eerily similar" case until Washington's suit was argued in Charlottesville last spring. At the time, he said, "I was buried at the farm, in my office and I didn't even come up for air for two months trying to finish the book."

Grisham had met Barry C. Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, and spent time at the project's New York offices researching the Williamson book. Scheck had helped with Williamson and Fritz's suit.

The Innocence Project's co-founder, Peter J. Neufeld, was the lead lawyer in Washington's suit. Grisham said he considered dropping by the Charlottesville trial to introduce himself to Neufeld.

But, he said, "I also caught myself thinking I cannot get distracted with anything else at this point because the research . . . had just snowballed on me and I was trying to figure out how to write and research at the same time."

"I sort of deliberately kept my distance from the Washington case, but I would read the newspaper reports every day in our local paper here and there were a lot of similarities, a lot of similarities."

Grisham, 51, learned of Williamson's story when he read his obituary in The New York Times in December 2004. Williamson died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 51.

His story prompted Grisham, a popular author of novels about the American legal system, to write his first nonfiction book.

Grisham, an opponent of capital punishment, believes that "the average person . . . is unaware of the number of wrongful convictions in this country. And, most people don't realize how badly the capital punishment system is broken."

"The Innocent Man" is now near the top of The New York Times' best-seller list. According to Random House, there are 2.8 million copies in print, and film rights have been purchased by George Clooney's production company.

A book about the Washington case, "An Expendable Man," by Margaret Edds was published in 2003. Edds, an editorial writer with The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, helped advance Washington's cause with her newspaper work.

Washington's case prompted a number of reforms in Virginia's criminal-justice system, including giving prison inmates the right to seek DNA testing to help them argue their innocence.

But Washington has not been compensated for the nine years he wrongly spent on death row. In 2003, legislation that would have paid him $1 million did not make it out of the General Assembly.

Instead, last year Virginia taxpayers were billed $1 million for legal fees for the unsuccessful defense against Washington's civil-rights suit in Charlottesville.

Though other wrongfully convicted men have been compensated by the Virginia legislature, Washington also was serving time for the unrelated assault of an elderly woman, and he might have been in a regular prison if he weren't on death row.

Nevertheless, the Charlottesville jury decided his nine years on death row should be worth $2.25 million.

Washington, like Williamson, never received an apology.

Grisham said that lawmakers often are reluctant to admit there has been any official wrongdoing.

"It's human nature to be reluctant to admit a mistake," Grisham said. "And, these cases have such high profiles that the admission of wrongdoing by the authorities would take more courage than they are able to find."

"The poor guys get screwed again. It's bad enough to convict them and throw them in jail for 15 years and then, when they finally get out, nobody wants to talk to them.

"It's heartbreaking," he said.

Contact staff writer Frank Green at fgreen@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6340.

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