I haven’t read John Grisham’s new book, The Innocent Man, so I make no claims about its accuracy or value. As an opponent of capital punishment, though, I’m definitely biased to support Mr. Grisham’s goal. That sparked my interest for this review of the book. It’s not positive, mostly discussing how the book is a polemic. The review seems fair, so I’m willing to assume it’s accurate. Still, the conclusion reaches too far in its assumption:
The one-sidedness of “The Innocent Man” is a shame, for two reasons. First, because it feeds the popular perception–nurtured by Hollywood and the news media–that death rows are teeming with wrongfully convicted men who just await DNA testing to set them free. Second, by skewing his tale, Mr. Grisham missed an opportunity to tell a well-rounded and perhaps more interesting story than the one he delivers. The author is not a journalist, and it shows: He doesn’t maintain even a pretense of detached reporting. He didn’t attempt to get Mr. Peterson’s side of the story, though hearing from the supposedly irresponsible prosecutor might have been illuminating. Indeed, Mr. Grisham seems to have given a wide berth not only to prosecutors but also to the police and even to the judge in Mr. Williamson’s trial.
Opponents of capital punishment will point to “The Innocent Man” as vindication of their views, but it’s not clear that their cause, in the end, is well served by Mr. Grisham’s heavy-handed proselytizing. The freeing of Mr. Williamson and Mr. Fritz was the result of the legal system’s checks and balances; it is characterized by Mr. Grisham as a lucky fluke in the never-ending battle between plucky defense attorneys and bloodthirsty prosecutors. While that outlook might make for fiction that readers just can’t put down, it misses the fact that in the real world of complicated heroes and villains, life does not imitate art.
I have faith in the justice system, as it’s designed. If I didn’t, the battle against capital punishment wouldn’t be worth fighting. It’s important to secure the foundation before decorating the penthouse. Nor do I believe that the death row is teeming with wrongfully convicted men. I do believe, however, that the possibility of one innocent man is enough to justify sparing everyone from the harshest punishment.
The reviewer is correct to scold anyone who reads too many generalizations into the story as told by Mr. Grisham. However, someone should make that generalization before being scolded. To imagine that capital punishment opponents will leap to that conclusion is to make the same generalization.