John Grisham on Judges, Innocence and the Judgments He Ignores

Your work with the Innocence Project was brought up. Talk a little more about the American criminal justice system and what you’ve learned from that experience.

It wasn’t anything I had ever expected myself to be a part of. For the past ten years, I’ve been a criminal defence attorney in Mississippi, where the justice system is excellent. It was a well-oiled machine that I was familiar with, from the cops to the prosecutors to the judges. Everyone acted in good faith.

Many of my clients ended up in prison. They earned it. No one I’ve ever worked with has been unfairly convicted. I had no idea these things were going on until — do you know Jim Dwyer?

Jim was a Colossus in Every Sense of the Word.

In December of 2004, he composed this obituary. For some reason, I find the obituaries in the New York Times very poignant. The obituary was published on a weekday. An Oklahoman man of my age, ethnicity, religion, and background, as well as a small-town, rural Arkansas man, was the focus of the story.

And he was picked by the Oakland A’s in the second round of the 1973 draught, which was the year I hoped to be drafted. No one ever said my name. Although he was picked in the first round, he didn’t make the team. Upon returning to his native Oklahoma, where he had grown up as an acclaimed sports hero, he was tried and convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. When he was just five days away from death, he had served 11 years.

Consequently, I’m reading his obituary right now. He’d just passed away moments before, having been cleared by DNA. I was slapped in the face by the story. I arrived in a little town in Oklahoma within a few days. This is the only nonfiction book I’ve ever published.

I’d never heard of wrongful convictions until reading this book, which was released in 2006. The more I learned while studying “The Innocent Man,” the more I came to realise exactly how many innocent people there are in prison today. I accepted Barry Scheck’s invitation to join the Innocence Project’s board of directors.

With the help of DNA testing, we’ve been able to free countless innocent people from prisons around the country. In addition, 375 people have been exonerated using DNA evidence, including those who were on death row.

Because you become so engrossed in the lives of these clients, the work becomes compulsive. Even when you know for sure that they aren’t guilty, the injustice still nags at me since they have spent 20 or 30 years in prison for someone else’s crime. It’s a war that I hope to wage for the rest of my life, and one that I hope to win.

Seeing someone who has achieved your level of success use that success to accomplish significant and valuable work like that is a joy to watch.

Here’s a secret for you, Adam. An entire book could be written about mistaken convictions alone; there is so much pain and suffering, as well as lost opportunities and resources that result from a single erroneous arrest and subsequent unjust conviction while the genuine perp remains at large.