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    Several years ago I was rummaging through a box of books and came across The Testament by John Grisham, the only book by him I had ever read. I knew he would be added to the short list of my favorite modern authors, which also includes Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, and Jonathan Valin, all of whose complete novels I have read, or at least own. I made a mental note to look out for more of his books, and let it go at that. When I began surfing the bookshelves at Goodwill, I was suddenly inundated with John Grisham novels. I hurriedly snatched them up, and I find, on the average, one per visit. Of his 40 novels, I now own almost half.
    This one, however, is not a novel. It is his only non-fictional book, written about a man wrongly accused of rape and murder through an unimaginably corrupt court in Ada, Oklahoma. I needed a book to fill my "non-fiction" slot on my Home Page rotation, so I chose this next. Boy, I can sure pick 'em! I was easing toward "fun and entertaining," to give my pour aching soul a rest from the midst of all the earthly horrors we are currently suffering. Well. It didn't happen here. This one is absolutely grueling. Horrible!!! But is it a good book? OMG, YES!!!!! It is incredible and the work Grisham put into writing it must have been grueling, too. At the very end, he has written several pages on his research, and it was thorough!
     Grisham was born in 1955 (same as me!) in Arkansas, later moving to Mississippi as a young child. After a series of insulting and humiliating jobs as a young adult—we've all been there—he got his law degree. Originally planning to be a tax lawyer, he switched to trial lawyer. He practiced law for about a decade, and was also a Democrat in the Mississippi House of Representatives. His first book, A Time to Kill was inspired by a real case, but not his, about a twelve-year-old girl telling the jury how she had been raped and beaten. This happened in 1984, and the book was published in 1989, followed by the best-seller, The Firm, which was also made into a movie and TV series. It was followed by The Pelican Brief, also a movie which I own on an old VHF, starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. And that was followed by numerous others that most people will recognize. As is often the case when someone in a profession turns author, their former profession offers a wealth of material to keep them occupied in writing, often for years and years. Joseph Conrad, and his career as a ship's Captain is a fine example. You will be hearing much more about John Grisham from me in the future.
    Years ago, when I was the Arts and Entertainment writer for the Youngstown Vindicator, which, sadly, closed up shop last year, I reviewed an excellent play, The Exonerated. It centers around six people—three black men, two white men, and a woman—wrongly accused of crimes they didn't commit, and I remember in at least one case, were not even near the crime scene. It was grueling, too, and made a case for abolition of the death penalty. I have, and still do have mixed feelings about that. There are some—lots of people now that are so wicked that . . . I dunno, they certainly should never be allowed to walk free, but I would rather be dead than spend my life behind bars, especially in the conditions suffered by the characters in this book.
    But this one is not about the death penalty. It is about extreme corruption in the legal system, which is also what Exonerated is about. Corrupt cops, lawyers, witnesses, judges—and it's not just Ada Oklahoma, it is all across the country and world. Lies, lies and lies, because someone benefits from them. A Sheriff looks good because he "caught the bad guy" real quick, or there is something going on in the background, like the known criminal supplying drugs for members of the police force, as was the case here. Prejudice and arrogance also play a role, and the list goes on. And it spotlights the absolutely unspeakable conditions under which prisoners, particularly those on death row, had to suffer. The prison Ron was assigned to was eventually cited for its inhumane cruelty and basically unacceptable conditions.
    But it is also about positive things, the most important being the role DNA analysis ultimately played in exonerating wrongly convicted people, through the work of the Innocence Project, of which Grisham is on the Board of Directors. It is my understanding that DNA evidence was in its early stages of being used for solving crimes, which would have been the late 1990s. The Innocence Project was founded in 1992. This book was published in 2006.
    It is also about the fact that there ARE some good and honest attorneys who truly want justice to be served. I have known a couple in my lifetime. Grisham certainly is one, and all the attorneys that worked so hard to bring about disclosure in the sham trials that convicted not only Ron and Dennis, but two other men.
    At the end of the book, when Grisham gives us a little of his background information, he says he was not even aware of the Ron Williamson case until after he had been released, then died. The more he looked into the more intrigued he became. He writes: "Not in my most creative moment could I conjure up a story as rich and as layered as Ron's." After talking to his sisters, he knew he had a book in the making.
    Not only is this a story about one man's conviction, the hell he endured, and his eventual exoneration, it is a biography of Ronald Keith Williamson. And it is not a pretty one. He was not a particularly well-behaved person, but of course that is no reason to convict him of a crime he did not commit. Woven in to his story are the stories of several others, two accused of kidnapping and killing a woman, though her body was never found, therefore DNA testing was not possible. Also taking place in Ada, which must have had a particularly corrupt legal system, these two were also railroaded into a conviction with no credible evidence.
    Another man, Dennis Fritz, who was a single dad, his wife having been murdered, and who was also a teacher, was convicted with Ron. He met him in Ada and they began to hang out, which was his first mistake, because it was his association with Ron that won him a conviction. As with Ron, there was absolutely no credible evidence to connect either one with the rape and murder of Debbie Carter. Neither of them even knew her.
    This book is 311 pages long in the hardback edition I have. Grisham has provided minute details about Ron's life, and a great deal more, so there is just way too much for me to even cover half of it in a review. So I will highlight certain points. He begins with a description of Ada (and Pontotoc County): a blend of "small-town southerners and independent westerners;" population (at the time): sixteen thousand; college and county courthouse; Bible Belt—fifty churches but no synagogues or temples; lots of Natives, especially Chickasaws—you get the idea, everyone knows each other and feels safe. But it was the two murders in the early 1980s that put Ada in the public eye. The first was Debbie Carter, who held several jobs, was independent and lived in her own apartment above a garage. She was a cocktail waitress at the Coachlight. She was slender, pretty and popular with the guys. The other was the kidnapping of Denice Haraway, whose body was never found.
    On December 7, 1982, Debbie was leaving work to go home. Witnesses saw her go to her car, when Glen Gore appeared out of nowhere. She pushed him away. She had previously remarked that she was afraid of him because of his temper. At 2 a.m. her friend Gina got two calls from Debbie, one requesting she come pick her up because she had a visitor that was making her uncomfortable, then heard muffled sounds in the background. As Gina jumped up to leave, Debbie called again, saying everything was fine.
    But it wasn't. She was later found raped and murdered in a particularly gruesome way. The thing is, Glen was the last person seen with Debbie, and yet he was the one person who was not treated as a suspect—ignored and allowed to slip through the cracks. Yet WE knew from the get-go that he was the guilty one. Even after Ron and Dennis were acquitted and the DNA from Glen's hair and semen samples matched the ones taken at the crime scene over a decade earlier, Bill Peterson, the District Attorney who knowingly botched this case, still did not rush for justice, and still held that Ron and Dennis were guilty. Until a massive lawsuit was filed against a whole slew of individuals and institutions, and the two won. It was settled for several million dollars.
    Now, let's jump backwards in time to Ron, as a youngster. The Williamsons were not that well off. Ron's dad was a door-to-door salesman and he also had two sisters, Annette and Renee. Now, whether intentionally or not. Grisham does not paint a picture of a very disciplined boy. The family was strongly Christian, and yet it seems that they did not train their son to be a responsible person. He was spoiled and expected, no, demanded to have everything he wanted, even though the rest of the family went without. Did this contribute to his mental problems later, or was he so self-centered because he was already exhibiting signs of mental illness? Throughout the story, he put his family through hell, and yet they catered to his demands. It was one of the perplexing aspects of the book. Why would any parents allow their child to be such a spoiled brat?
    As he grew older, he became a local baseball star. He assumed he would make it to the major leagues—be the next Mickey Mantle. He had a superb and supportive high school coach that created champion teams with little to work with. Ron was strong and healthy, good looking and popular with the girls. But he also started to develop bad habits including getting drunk.
    He eventually signed on with the Oakland Athletics in 1971, a minor league. He got a $50,000 signing bonus, bought a Cutlass Supreme, clothes and a color TV for his parents and lost the rest in a poker game. But as it turned out, he was not the star he dreamed to be. Then his appendix ruptured, and he drank even more while he tried to heal. When he did, and was able to get back to the game, his batting averages were unimpressive. And the drinking got worse.
    He then fell in love with a strict Baptist, Patty O'Brien, and had an opportunity to clean up his act. But he was being ignored in baseball. Minor league wasn't good enough for him—he wanted to go to the top, and yet, there were way more players far better than him. In March, 1974, he hurt his elbow in batting practice, which never really healed. The A's cut him.
    He and Patty settled in Tulsa. He began working for Bell Telephone, the first of a series of jobs throughout his whole life that he could never hold for very long. He was delusional, thinking he would still make it to the big leagues. He started drinking again. His sister, Annette sent him money to help out until Patty told he was wasting it on booze. He and Patty divorced after three years.
    In 1976, he signed with the Oneonta Yankees, and was back in the game again. But a shoulder injury once again took him out of the game and this time for good.
    And I want to make another point here, and that is concerning his poor sisters, especially Annette, whose love for him never failed, even though he, truly, was nothing but trouble his whole life. Whatever he demanded, they did, and again, I wonder why. I have to comment here that, yes, it was terrible that he was convicted of a crime he obviously did not commit, but he was far from innocent. His drinking led to drugs, two rape charges, inability to hold a job and be responsible. And there were signs of mental illness, such as being unable to function socially or hold a normal conversation. His family noticed a drastic change in his personality. Was his mental illness caused by all the drinking and drug abuse, or vice versa? He began getting arrested for drunk driving and did jail time for forgery. His mental condition only continued to deteriorate, and thus his behavior did, too. Chapter after chapter detailed all the trouble this man caused himself and others. Unfortunately, he got hooked up with a rather good man, Dennis Fritz, and it is because of his association with Ron that he ended up being also charged with the rape and murder of Debbie Carter.
    The material I've supplied so far sets up the lifetime of misery for Ron and those who were closest to him. And I want to add that most likely, these people would have led rather calm and normal lives without him. This is not the supposition suggested by Grisham, it is strictly my own, because I am someone who has spent decades working on developing personal integrity and responsibility. But that obviously does not excuse the corruption and railroading that Ron and Dennis suffered. I am going to just share now some random information about the trials and convictions. You can obtain more information on this case from Wikipedia, but the best thing to do is read the book.
    Ron was first interviewed about the murder three months after it happened, which included fingerprinting. His mother kept records, and had recorded that he was home on December 7, 1982, the night Debbie was murdered. By this time Ron was a waste. He had been charged twice with rape, arrested for drunk driving, and for a while living back in Ada with his mother, sleeping twenty hour a day on her sofa. His father died in 1978. He began seeking mental health counseling, which would continue for the rest of his life. He was put on an endless stream of drugs which he sometimes took and sometimes didn't. He began hearing voices. He was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He was becoming increasingly out of control.
    Dennis Fritz had a good job with the railroad. On Christmas Day, 1975, he was working out of town when his seventeen-year-old neighbor murdered his wife in their house. They had a baby girl, Elizabeth. Dennis was unable to work for two years from the shock. In 1981 he got a job teaching junior high science. He moved to Ada, where his mother joined him to help care for Elizabeth, near Ron's parent's home and near the apartment where Debbie would be murdered. He took an additional teaching job, doing also basketball coaching. It was in November 1981 that he and Ron met and began drinking together and playing their guitars. But later on, Ron stole Dennis's car. It was returned but they didn't speak for months.
    It was at this time that Dennis Fritz received a call to come to the police station and answer questions. Where was he on December 7, 1982? Did he know Debbie Carter? No. He was later called to take a polygraph test, and with his science background, he knew they were unreliable. He was nervous, and later found he "severely flunked" the test. He took another with the same results. (He much later learned that he did not flunk the tests.)
    At the time Ron and Dennis became the lead suspects for the murder, Ron was already behind bars for forgery. Grisham writes:

The case against Ron consisted of two "inconclusive" polygraph exams, a bad reputation, a residence not far from that of the victim's, and the delayed, half-baked eyewitness identification of Glen Gore.

The case against Dennis Fritz was even weaker. One year after the murder, the only tangible result of the investigation had been the firing of a ninth-grade science teacher.

    By the time the cases came to trial, neither could afford attorneys. Ron was assigned Barney Ward, a blind but effective attorney, and Dennis, Greg Saunders. As for Ron, at this point he could not behave in court. He had violent outbursts and would not shut up, constantly screaming, "I am innocent." If justice was to be properly served, he should have had a thorough mental evaluation which would have proved his incompetency to face trial.
    And all kinds of false witnesses suddenly materialized. Glen Gore, remember, was the last person seen with Debbie, and yet it was he who swore Ron was at the Coachlight that night. No one else had seen him, and he was certainly a familiar face at the bars. Because Gore was supplying drugs to certain policemen, his testimony was supported. Jailhouse "snitches" were popular in Ada for the prosecution. Witnesses, such as women who could not possibly have heard him from where they were housed in the jail, told of his whispered confessions, for favors, of course, concerning their own cases. Someone even testified that they saw two men washing blood off themselves with a garden hose the night the murder took place. You get the idea. The whole trial was a series of fabrications. And if you think it was just Ada, Oklahoma, think again. It is everywhere. I know horror stories from the counties near me. Some of the most heinous and corrupt people on the face of the earth are members of the legal system. That should be no surprise to anyone.
    Anyways, Dennis got life in prison, where, because he was basically an intelligent and studious man, had access to the law library where he was incarcerated, and spent his days studying. Ron's mental and physical health seriously declined. He lost most of his teeth and after a while didn't bathe or change his clothes. When the Innocence Project finally got hold of his case, he was taken to court and easily proved insane, which should have been done a decade before. Dennis, because he was not on death row, was not eligible for the Innocence Project, but because his case was so tied to Ron's he was also retried and both were acquitted in 1999, after eleven years of incarceration, because DNA evidence proved them not guilty. Dennis went on to rebuild his life with his beautiful daughter and mother.
    Ron, however, never recovered. His mother had died while he was in prison, and his sisters, mostly Annette were faced with his care. He tried to get jobs, but couldn't hold one for more than a few months. Even after he won the money from the lawsuit, nothing improved. With Annette's help, he bought a condo, for $60,000, but after a while trashed it. He was soon after diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and moved into a nursing home. A much wished-for death came very quickly.
    This is an absolutely disturbing book to read, but we must read it in order to call out all the lies and injustice being perpetrated on this planet. Finding something uncomfortable in this present time is NOT a viable excuse for avoiding it. We all need to face the reality of lies, evil and corruption that is absolutely devastating all aspects of life on earth. I am sure you can borrow this book from a library, or become a fan of the Goodwill bookshelves or other used book stores, and you will probably find it.

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