Diane Prather: Grisham's stab at nonfiction a must-read

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Imagine being innocent of a crime and yet spending 12 years on death row. That's what happened to Ron Williamson. Dennis Fritz, a man convicted with Williamson and also innocent, served 12 years of a life sentence.

This sounds like the plot for a novel, but it's a true story that took John Grisham 18 months to research and write. "The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town" is Grisham's first nonfiction book.

Research took Grisham to Ada, Okla., an old oil town of 16,000. Located in Pontotoc County, Ada is home to East Central University, attended by 4,000 students.

Ada's people are friendly and eager to help one another. They feel comfortable leaving their doors open during the day and letting their children play on "shady front lawns." So, finding one of their own brutally murdered had to be a shock, indeed.

On the morning of Dec. 8, 1982, a friend of Debbie Carter's entered the woman's unlocked apartment. It had been ransacked, and in the bedroom Carter lay dead.

The night before, Carter, a popular 20-year-old woman, had been working at The Coachlight, a nightclub at the edge of town. It was a slow night and she quit early to spend time with her friends.

But the night was full of oddities. Carter danced with Glen Gore, a friend from high school, but then suddenly left the dance floor. Carter also mentioned wanting a girlfriend to stay the night with her.

Several residents saw Gore talking to Carter as she sat in her car. At 2:30 that morning, she called a girlfriend from her apartment. A visitor was making her feel uncomfortable, and she needed to get out of there. But a little later, she changed her mind.

The authorities had no clear suspects though they interviewed people and took fingerprints and samples. One of persons interviewed was Gore, but, strangely, they never got any samples from him.

The investigation went on. Eventually Williamson's name came up. In 1971, out of high school, Williamson signed with the Oakland A's, the first athlete in Oklahoma to do so. Many thought he might be the next Mickey Mantle, but an injury put an end to his dreams.

Williamson had a bad reputation. He drank too much, chased women and began to have some serious mental health problems. He spent some jail time for a DUI. His cell mate somehow got the idea that Williamson was connected to Carter's murder.

Fritz was Williamson's friend. That's how he became involved in the investigation.

Gore gave a statement that Williamson was at the club the night of Dec. 7, 1982, and was bothering Carter.

Another woman was murdered in Ada, putting pressure on investigators. They relied on the word of convicts and snitches to get Williamson and Fritz convicted.

It was 12 years before DNA testing was done to prove that the two men were innocent.

This book, packed with information, is a must-read.

The book is published by Doubleday (2006) and costs $28.95 in hardcover. You can find it at the Moffat County Library. ISBN 0-385-51723-8

© Copyright Diane Prather, 2006. All rights reserved.

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