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John Grisham on Judges, Innocence, and the Judgments He Ignores

You mentioned your work with Project Innocence. Tell you a little more about what you learned about the American criminal justice system from this experience.

It wasn’t something I thought I would get involved in. I practiced criminal law for 10 years, and we had a really good system in my little rural corner of Mississippi. I knew the cops, I knew the prosecutors, I knew the judges, and it was a very effective system. Everyone played fair. I have had a lot of clients who have gone to jail. They deserved it. I have never had a client who I thought had been wrongly convicted. It just never occurred to me that these things were happening until – do you know Jim Dwyer?

Jim was a giant.

He wrote this obituary in December 2004. I love New York Times obituaries. And that was a weekday obituary. The main story was a guy my age, my race, my background, my religion, my part of the country – he was from Oklahoma, I’m from Arkansas – a small rural town. And he was an Oakland A’s second-round pick in 1973, a year I thought I might be drafted. My name has never been called. This guy was drafted high but, anyway, didn’t make it. And he returned to his hometown of Oklahoma and was convicted of capital murder and sent to death row by the same city that has always idolized him as a sports hero. He served 11 years, came within five days of his execution.

So I read his obituary. He had just died after being exonerated by DNA. The story just slapped me. Shortly after, I was in Oklahoma, in a small town. This is my only non-fiction book. It was released in 2006, and it really immersed me in the world of wrongful convictions, something I never really thought about. Once I started researching “The Innocent Man,” I just realized how many innocent people are actually in prison, and there are thousands, tens of thousands. Barry Scheck asked me to join the Innocence Project board, and I did. We advocate from coast to coast to get our innocent clients out of jail through DNA testing. And we have 375 DNA exemptions, and some of them were on death row.

The work is addictive because you end up with these clients. You come to know that they are innocent and yet they have spent 20 or 30 years in prison for somebody else’s crime, and so injustice is really something that always harasses me. It is an endless battle that I hope to fight for the rest of my life.

It’s great to see someone, after reaching your level of achievement, exploit them to do such important and valuable work like this.

I’ll tell you something, Adam. Every wrongful conviction case should be a book because they are fantastic stories from a storytelling point of view because of the incredible suffering, injustice, wasted lives, wasted time, wasted money, everything that happens in a single wrongful conviction. condemnation, while the real rapist, the real murderer is free.


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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson