The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town
By John Grisham
Hardcover, 368 pp., $28.95
Ada isn’t just the three-letter answer to the crossword puzzle clue “town in Oklahoma.” It isn’t just the place that old-timers remember passing through as they traveled north from Dallas. It isn’t just the home of the famous Ada Cougar High School football team, or of the lesser-known college East Central Tigers. It isn’t just my hometown.
Ada is the setting for world famous John Grisham’s new nonfiction book about the American justice system and some of its victims. The title character is Ron Williamson, a mentally ill man, who was tortured through years of legal railroading and inhuman incarceration before he was saved, at the last moment possible, by the first actual evidence ever presented in his long murder trials and appeals.
Even after he was found innocent and released, even after the actual murderer was clearly exposed by scientific DNA testing, the district attorney of Ada continued frothing that Williamson was still a “suspect.”
Grisham, one of America’s popular authors, is also a legal expert with courtroom and state legislature experience. His report of Williamson’s railroading, and one of his casual buddies, gives grisly insight how the legal system may be employed or ignored for political ends.
His descriptions of the Pontotoc County jail gives readers grave humanitarian concerns — before they learn that Williamson’s other jails were even worse!
While Williamson’s kangaroo courts were in session, a similar Ada drama unfolded with two other accused murderers. They were convicted largely on the basis that one of them explained a “dream” to the eager detectives. In the dream, he was guilty, even though his “admissions” didn’t actually fit the facts in the case. The detectives used it as a confession to put two men behind bars, where they remain after decades.
Ron Williamson, too, was said to have given a “dream” confession. The earlier case makes fascinating reading in “Dreams of Ada” by Robert Mayer.
Grisham’s book is straightforward and factual; Mayer takes the time to try to explain the social schism in Ada that gave rise to such pernicious injustice. Mayer said that Ada has two populations: one respectable, and the other he named “Ada’s running crowd.” For years after I read it, this native Adan tried to figure out how a town could have developed two populations with one so hell-bent on persecuting the other.
When Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and Ada was barely begun, the overwhelming population consisted of sharecroppers, mostly on Native American land or on land that had recently been hornswoggled away from the tribes. Together, they had a powerful political voice.
Oklahoma, prior to the 1917 red-bashing atrocities, was the pride of the Socialist Party. Eugene Victor Debs took Ada, Pontotoc County, and two of the surrounding counties in his 1916 presidential campaign.
In August of 1917, some of the sharecroppers and small farmers of all races united around opposition to President Woodrow Wilson and World War I. An armed posse from Ada smashed them. The editor of the Ada Evening News accompanied the posse, but agreed to cover up the events.
Today, almost nobody in Oklahoma knows about the proud “Greencorn Rebellion” against war, government oppression and lies. Hundreds of sharecroppers and small farmers were stuffed into jails all over the state. Jails became overfull, even in surrounding states.
Their political power, like their dwindling economic base, was gone. Most of them, Black, white and Brown, moved into peripheral areas, peripheral jobs, and peripheral lives in small towns. Ada was close to those events, and remains a center for refugees. The townspeople, then and now, can barely stand them.
John Grisham’s powerful, fact-laden book indicts what passes for a justice system in Ada and in Oklahoma. If Adans, Oklahomans and Americans are ever to be free, we will need to understand the forces that oppress us and the means they employ. With “The Innocent Man,” Grisham has given Ada and America a wonderful gift!