Press "Enter" to skip to content

Book review: “The Innocent Man” by John Grisham

A small town holds a puzzling mystery.

If you drive 120 miles down Interstate 44 West from Tulsa, you’ll run into the small town of Ada, OK—that is, of course, if you don’t blink. Home to 17,000 people, Ada is the last place you’d guess to be the setting for John Grisham’s only non-fiction venture, “The Innocent Man.”

Grisham ventured into the genre because he says if he would’ve written it as a novel, “folks probably wouldn’t believe it.” The book recounts a strange and horrifying story of the two murders of Debbie Carter and Denice Haraway which occurred in the early 1980s.

In a town as small as Ada, people were stunned and frightened that such a gruesome event could happen in their hometown not once, but twice, and in such a short amount of time.

With the entire town disturbed, the pressure was on the Ada police to find the killers. This pressure went to Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson’s head as his questionable police work led him and his staff to make hasty, insufficiently substantiated arrests.

Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were arrested for the murder of Debbie Carter, and Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot were arrested for the murder of Denice Haraway. Strangely, the biggest pieces of evidence the police had on the respective “killers” were both “dream” confessions. These dream confessions were obtained by police after hours of coercion, through which Tommy Ward and Ron Williamson confessed they each had dreams where they were killing their respective victims.

Flash forward, all four men were convicted by the use of tainted evidence as a result of police vendettas and secret schemes to capture the four men for the sole purpose of arresting someone. They were all easy targets based upon past run-ins with the law. Now, thanks to the Innocence Project, Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson were exonerated because of DNA evidence in the murder of Debbie Carter.

The book ends with Grisham detailing how the wrongful incarceration of Ron Williamson impacted his mental health. He came within five days of being executed on death row and spent the rest of his life out of his mind.

Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot still remain in prison as their lawyers exhaust the appeals process trying to free them in the same way. A harrowing tale that has now been made into a six-part Netflix series, Grisham’s novel is worth the read, especially considering how close to home the story hits with the end still unwritten.