October 21, 2006

A Condemned Man's Perspective of "The Innocent Man"

When I grow up I am going to be a pretty white boy of wealth and privilege, a hometown hero that inevitably falls from grace. I am going to bestow upon myself all the opportunities to do anything I want with my life. Then I am going to blow it. But really, don’t blame me as there’s a balance to everything and as good as it may get I am still going to be handicapped by mental illness that leads to substance abuse, which leads to death row for a crime I didn’t commit.

In the recently released book “The Innocent man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town” renowned best selling author John Grisham tells the true life story of Ron Williamson, “ a once promising ballplayer who spent 11 years on Oklahoma’s death row for rape and murder he did not commit.” It’s a tragic story of injustice that needs to be told -- and needs to be read – and I applaud John Grisham for the excellent job he did.

But here’s the kicker … would John Grisham had written this book if Williamson was actually more emblematic of the average man wrongfully convicted and condemned to death? Even as much as I command Grisham for the outstanding job he did in exposing just how easy it is to end up on death row for a crime you didn’t commit, I’m afraid I must confess that “The Innocent Man” is not another “to Kill a Mockingbird.”

Then again, it shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s there that we did confront the truth that anyone -- even someone of privilege and opportunity – can be wrongfully convicted and condemned to death in spite of innocence. Maybe it’s time that the average person out there presently ignorant of how the judicial system really works gets a peek into the reality of our legal system. This book provides that look.

Most people out there in the real world – especially those who support the death penalty – are conveniently ignorant of how the system works. What Grisham’s book does not adequately impress upon the reader is this… as tragic as the Williamson story is, Ron Williamson is a very lucky man. I’m sorry that he had to experience such an injustice and that his life ended way too soon. But he is still a very lucky man as if he was truly the “average” innocent man on death row this story would have never been told and Williamson would probably have died on death row.

John Grisham wrote the Williamson story most likely because he could personally empathize with Ron Williamson. Both grew up in small towns of the quintessential American Midwest. They both came from strict Christian homes and played baseball at their local little league. Both had supportive families with a real future that surely included the classic American coming of age ritual of going to the prom and graduating high school and then on to college. Could it be that what this book is really about is John Grisham saw himself in Ron Williamson and realized that with all the privileges and opportunities the “average” small town boy had, it still didn’t take much to wrongfully convict him and send him to death row.

But by the grace of God go I… Ron Williamson was a blessed man. Of the 25 men and women exonerated in Florida after being wrongfully convicted and condemned to death, only one was exonerated by DNA evidence. Frank Smith died on death row of cancer before that DNA evidence could clear him. As a poor Afro-American man with a troubled past and a long history of mental illness, his story will never be memorialized in a bestseller.

Juan Melendez (“Johnny”) spent 18 years on Florida’s death row before being exonerated. He was for a time my cell neighbor and always a friend. As a poor Hispanic migrant worker his story won’t be memorialized. Like most of the condemned, he never had any outside support. When the day came for his release he didn’t even have a pair of shoes – I gave him my own shoes so that he wouldn’t walk back into the free world barefoot.

For over 23 years now I’ve argued my own innocence to anyone who would listen – and very few were ever willing to listen. Although a wealth of evidence substantiating my innocence has been pending before the lower state court for almost 9 years now, I remain here. Although some may say I am a pretty white boy, unlike Williamson as a means of necessity I left home at 15. To say that I had an abusive childhood and dysfunctional family would be an understatement. In 1988 when I came within hours of execution and the prison arranged a “final visit” with family – nobody came. I don’t have family or friends willing to advocate my cause. With only a 9th grade formal education all too often I am forced to represent myself in court. In the past 8 years I’ve had 9 different lawyers as consistently these lawyers abruptly resign from the low paid state agency responsible for representing death row prisoners to take a better job, abruptly abandoning my case.

My case is not the exception, but the rule. Without the outside support and the committed legal representation Ron Williamson had, he would have just been another nobody and regardless of evidence of actual innocence, he probably would have died on death row. John Grisham/s book is an excellent expose of a corrupt judicial system – but Ron Williams was not the average death row inmate – Williamson was a lucky man.