The obituary in the New York Times wasn't particularly long or prominently displayed, but something about it drew the attention of writer John Grisham. The Times article on December 9, 2004, reported the death of Ronald Williamson, an Oklahoma man who had narrowly escaped execution, only to die of liver disease 10 years later. What fascinated Grisham, he would later reveal, were the similarities between Williamson's background and his own. Both men had aimed for careers in professional baseball though Grisham eventually gave up on sports, turned to the law and became a best-selling author of legal suspense. Williamson's life trajectory was equally dramatic, but in the opposite direction. A star pitcher and catcher on his Ada, Oklahoma, high school team, Williamson was drafted by the Oakland A's in 1971 and spent six years in the minor leagues before an arm injury ended his career. Returning home to Ada, Williamson moved in with his mother and began to show signs of mental illness.
In 1982, Williamson's hometown was rocked by the brutal rape and murder of cocktail waitress Debra Sue Carter, whose body was found in her garage apartment. The case went unsolved until 1987, when Williamson and a friend, Dennis Fritz, were arrested and charged with the murder. The main witness against the two was a man named Glen Gore, who claimed that the pair had been at the club where Carter worked on the night of her slaying. Williamson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, while Fritz received a life sentence.
Five days before his scheduled execution in 1994, a public defender succeeded in winning a stay on the grounds that Williamson had ineffective counsel at trial. When DNA testing revealed that physical evidence from the crime scene matched Glen Gore rather than Williamson, he was exonerated and freed from prison in 1999; five years later he died in a nursing home from cirrhosis of the liver.
Not in my most creative hour could I imagine a story as compelling as Ron Williamson's, says Grisham, who bought rights to the story from Williamson's family shortly after reading the Times obit. His new book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, is his first nonfiction effort, a look at the crime, the trial and Williamson's eventual release. If Grisham's publisher, Doubleday, has any concerns about promoting a work of nonfiction, they are certainly not showing it, instead stressing the similarities between The Innocent Man and Grisham's fiction. It's a natural story for John to tell, says Doubleday president Stephen Rubin. It has many of the same themes present in his novels legal suspense, the death penalty, wrongful conviction, even baseball. It's the ultimate true legal thriller. Grisham knows a thing or two about legal thrillers, having penned 15 bestsellers in the category, from the 1991 blockbuster The Firm to 2005's The Broker. Along the way, he has also made several departures from the genre, including the autobiographical novel A Painted House and the Grinch-like holiday book, Skipping Christmas.
Grisham practiced civil and criminal law in Mississippi for almost a decade before devoting himself to writing. A generous philanthropist, he contributed $5 million to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, setting up a fund that he and his wife, Renee, administered from their kitchen table. The only thing that really matters in life is helping other people, Grisham told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. What fun is it to accumulate a lot of money and sit on it?