It was Ron Williamson’s obituary in the Dec. 9, 2004, issue of The New York Times that caught attorney and author John Grisham’s eye.
“It had all the elements of a novel,” Grisham said in an interview with the Jackson Free Press. “The small town Southern feel to it; the small town sport hero going off to make his mark in the major leagues and failing; a grizzly murder; a wrongful conviction; a trip to death row; insanity; a near execution; exoneration; the eventual conviction of the real killer; a lawsuit to recover damages. I could not make that up, and if I did make it up, nobody would believe it. It’s too rich to pass up.”
After 11 years on Oklahoma’s death row, DNA evidence proved that Williamson was not the killer of 21-year-old Debra Carter. He and Dennis Fritz, who a jury in Ada, Okla., also convicted of the crime, walked away free men on April 15, 1999.
But for Ron Williamson, exoneration came too late; he was unable get his life back on track. His long history with drug and alcohol abuse—compounded by bipolar disease, personality disorders and a mild form of schizophrenia, all untreated during his incarceration—had taken their toll. The one-time minor-league baseball hero died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 51 on Dec. 4, 2004, less than five years after his release. At the time of his death, people mistook him for a man 30 years older, his hair prematurely white and his skin sallow around his empty, sunken eyes.
Grisham was so intrigued by the story that he spent 18 months writing his only non-fiction book to date, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town,” which was published in October 2006.
“Non-fiction is brutal,” he said. “I had to hire a full-time research assistant just to plow through all the documents and keep everything straight.”