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“The Innocent Man,” Revelation, and Reform

September 01, 2020 by G.W. Schulz

John Grisham is one of the best-selling authors of all time, having published over 40 suspense novels and legal thrillers. Only one of his bestselling books, however, is a true story.

First published in 2007, “The Innocent Man” remains Grisham’s only book of nonfiction and follows two murder cases that occurred in Ada, Oklahoma, during the 1980s. It has since also become a popular Netflix series by the same name.

Small Town Injustice

The state of Oklahoma convicted four men in the two separate cases of raping and killing two young white women in Ada named Donna Denice Haraway and Debra Sue Carter. The same local and state police investigators, the same local prosecuting attorneys, and the same jailhouse informant were involved in both cases.

The jailhouse informant who testified against the four defendants was granted leniency by prosecutors that was never disclosed to defense attorneys, according to later appeals court rulings in the cases.

In exchange, the informant claimed to investigators that she overheard the defendants from both cases and on separate occasions make incriminating descriptions of their involvement in the killings while the informant herself was in local custody facing unrelated charges.

Two of the defendants have since been released through DNA evidence. A third man who initially testified as a witness in the case was arrested for the killing of Debra Sue Carter.

The remaining two defendants have been released pending retrials after Federal Appeals Court judges skewered investigators, prosecutors, and courts in Oklahoma for failures made in the cases.

“Their stories are heartbreaking,” Grisham said of the four Ada defendants in a 2017 interview. “If you’re accused of murder, don’t confess. Tommy Ward broke down after a long night of abusive interrogation. When he cracked, he decided to give the police the sensational story they wanted.”

Revelations in the Ada cases and others like them around the state have prompted a series of reform laws in Oklahoma intended to reduce wrongful convictions.

Reform laws in Oklahoma now:

  • Require greater disclosure of the use of jailhouse informants and leniency granted
  • Require so-called “blind” lineups and photo arrays that don’t bias a suspect
  • Require complete recordings of interrogations in homicide and rape cases (Grisham argues this should occur in the half of states with no current law)
  • Entitle wrongfully convicted people to compensation up to $175,000
  • Expand access to DNA testing for proving one’s innocence
  • Require physical evidence from violent felony cases be held longer

Grisham told the criminal justice news site The Marshall Project that bipartisan reform efforts in Oklahoma and elsewhere are long overdue.

“One factor is probably the high costs of mass incarceration. Another factor is probably the rise of DNA, which has exonerated so many innocent people. You can’t argue with science. Jurors are more skeptical; police more cautious. … My eyes were opened in 2004 when I began researching and writing ‘The Innocent Man.’ That book took me into the world of wrongful convictions, and I slowly realized that there are thousands of innocent people in prison.”

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