The book tells the story of Ron Williamson of tiny Ada, Oklahoma. A washed-up minor league baseball player with delusions of grandeur, Williamson was a somewhat unpleasant character who is eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to death because of shoddy police work, tunnel vision, lackluster defense counsel, forensic fraud, and the abject failure of the court to ensure a fair trail. The book could read as a Cliff’s Notes guide to wrongful convictions if it could be boiled down to 10 pages, but that would do it an injustice.
The book’s reputation proceeds it, and it lives up to every word of the praise that has been heaped on it since it was published three years ago. “Meticulously researched,” is a common refrain among reviewers, and they’re dead on. I found it hard to believe, at times, that Grisham was intricately describing reality – dozens of interviews, thousands of pages of documents – rather than crafting a world of his own: his creation is so complete as to be completely engulfing.
I highly recommend the book, but there’s one passage that I must comment on here, rather than trust that everyone out there pick up a copy based on my word and make it at least to page 333.
The setting: three years since Oklahoma’s last execution, they fire up the works once more, with a vengeance, and start rushing death row inmates through the process. First was Thomas Grasso, then Roger Dale Stafford, and then came Robert Brecheen.
On August 11, 1995, a bizarre execution took place. Robert Brecheen, a forty-year-old white male, barely made it to the death chamber. The day before, he swallowed a handful of painkillers that he had somehow smuggled in and stockpiled. His suicide was to be his final effort at telling the state to go to hell, but the state prevailed. Brecheen was found unconscious by the guards and rushed to the hospital, where his stomach was pumped and he was stabilized enough to get hauled back to H Unit [death row] for a proper killing.
And so continues the portrait of America’s criminal justice system that Grisham paints: full of unintentional yet overwhelming absurdity, laced with vengeance, spite, dehumanization, and utterly confusing and overwhelming for whomever should become ensnarled in the maelstrom.
The book, at over 430 pages, would seem like a project to read for some. But it flies by, it is engrossing, it is compelling, and it is all true. A great read by an author who honed his craft at fiction, I recommend it highly!