The Innocent Man by John Grisham Century, HK$285 Perhaps it was coincidence that master of the legal thriller John Grisham's first foray into non-fiction, The Innocent Man, was released on October 10. It just so happened to be World Day Against the Death Penalty and the theme this year was 'failures of justice in the sentencing and implementation of the death penalty'. The Innocent Man is a powerful book about just those failures. Grisham joins other lawyer- writers such as Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent et al), whose Ultimate Punishment (2003) recalls his experiences on an Illinois death-penalty inquiry, in finding that if a society wants the death penalty it must ensure a fair trial, at state expense if necessary, for those accused of a capital crime. The Innocent Man is about Ron Williamson, of Ada, Oklahoma, who yearned to play baseball for the Yankees, but ended up five days from death by lethal injection and driven nearly insane because no one would believe he was innocent of the brutal murder for which he was convicted. It's an unflinching and far from pretty story. Travesties of justice happen far too often in the US and elsewhere for readers to be shocked that an innocent man was nearly executed. 'Wrongful convictions occur every month in every state in this country,' Grisham says at the end of this book. Amnesty International says that since executions resumed in the US in 1973, 123 death-row prisoners have been released after being found innocent. Six were released in 2004, two last year, and one so far this year. 'Recurring features in their cases include prosecutorial or police misconduct; the use of unreliable witness testimony, physical evidence, or confessions; and inadequate defence representation,' Amnesty says. 'Other US prisoners have gone to their deaths despite serious doubts over their guilt.' Grisham says the same thing in The Innocent Man. He never met Williamson, but was drawn to his story, and that of his co-accused Dennis Fritz, by Williamson's obituary in The New York Times. Williamson died in December 2004, aged 51, five years after his exoneration. He spent 11 years on death row. Williamson and Fritz, like others whose cases Grisham draws into his narrative, were average white, lower middle-class Americans who came from 'good families' in a largely white town with 'two churches in every corner'. 'When you don't have any money to defend yourself, you're at the mercy of the judicial system,' Fritz is quoted as saying. 'Once in the system, it's almost impossible to get out, even if you are innocent.' Grisham's writing is that of the polished professional. He paces the story with precision and departs on occasion from his narrative, based in large part on court documents and field research, to explain crucial points of law that are generally taken for granted. The first third of the book introduces the characters: Williamson, the small-town high-school baseball star who took a shot at playing for the Yankees only to be cut after injuring his shoulder; Fritz, an occasional drinking buddy trying to raise his young daughter after the drive-by murder of his wife; the district attorney Bill Petersen, who refuses to admit he made a mistake; Glen Gore, who pointed the finger at Williamson; and the police, who suppressed or ignored evidence. Then, Grisham takes the reader on a harrowing ride through life on death row as it was in the 1990s and probably still is today for some 3,400 prisoners. As Williamson spirals towards insanity, brief narratives visit the plight of other, mentally stronger incarcerated innocents, before we're plunged back into Williamson's nightmare. Williamson's exoneration when it comes is long expected, but offers little relief. He was freed by DNA evidence that cleared him and Fritz. However, what saved him as the clock ran out was the diligence of a single legal professional who woke the judicial system to a gross miscarriage of justice. Gore was sentenced on June 21 this year to life imprisonment for the 1982 rape and murder of 21-year-old Debbie Carter. He escaped the death penalty because of a jury deadlock. Villains abound in The Innocent Man. Uncomfortably, there are few heroes.