I recently listened to the audio version of John Grisham’s book The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. It’s a story primarily about Ron Williamson, an ex-baseball star with developing mental issues who is convicted of a murder he did not commit.

I was in the midst of one of my ordinary out of state business trips and had a long drive over a couple of days. Driving along as I listened to the story I remember thinking that this wasn’t one of Grisham’s best works: The whole thing seemed really over the top. Nobody in law enforcement or in our judicial system could be this negligent, corrupt, incompetent, or just plain stupid. Not in real life. Grisham was pushing the limits of believability.

It wasn’t until the next day, after I began listening to the last disc, that I realized that Grisham hadn’t been writing fiction. He was telling a story about events that had actually happened. I have to say that realization made me nothing short of horrified.

The story has a happy ending…sort of. Williamson and another man, Dennis Fritz, are finally cleared of the murder and released after over a decade behind bars. But Williamson’s mental and physical health worsened dramatically while in prison, and he died some five years after his release.

The rest of the story is a perfectly dreadful one: A young woman, Debra Sue Carter, is brutally raped and murdered late in 1982. On the singular testimony of a man named Glen Gore, who turned out to be the real killer, and with absolutely no compelling physical evidence, Ron Williamson is charged with the murder. Dennis Fritz was implicated in the murder simply because he was a friend of Williamson’s. Both men were convicted in 1988, with Fritz getting a sentence of life in prison. Williamson received the death penalty.

In September of 1994, and five days from the date of Williamson’s scheduled execution by the State of Oklahoma, Williamson’s execution was stayed following a habeas corpus filing, and after eleven years on death row and following several appeals, Williamson was exonerated by DNA testing and was finally freed in April of 1999. Fritz was freed as well.

The details of how poorly the case was handled by nearly everyone involved in it are well documented in Grisham’s book. If you read it you will, I suspect, find yourself in disbelief at how all this could happen. A few questions come to mind:

How is it that no one saw Ron Williamson that night at the bar where Carter worked except Glen Gore, and yet that was enough to establish Williamson’s alleged contact with Carter? And this in spite of Williamson’s mother’s testimony to police officials that Williamson was home with her that night watching television.

Why didn’t anyone explain to the jury that hair samples proved virtually nothing?

Why didn’t the defense attempt to argue that Williamson wasn’t competent to stand trial?

Why wasn’t a video taped confession to the crime by another individual (Ricky Joe Simmons) introduced at trial?

Why didn’t the authorities pursue Glen Gore even in the most cursory way instead of building their case on the self-serving lies of this man who actually committed the crime?

I haven’t changed my position on the death penalty. I think it’s allowable and even necessary. But hearing about this case made me reconsider whether our system allows for the appropriate protections for the innocent who are occasionally convicted for capital crimes they didn’t commit. DNA evidence is a wonderful thing. It’s actually what ended up clearing Williamson and Fritz and finally nailing that worthless killer Glen Gore. But DNA isn’t infallible either. And in some cases DNA may reside quite naturally in a crime scene but it should not always be considered the DNA of the perpetrator. For example, consider someone who is murdered in their home and the spouse is charged with the crime.

It’s clear from the Williamson case that our judicial system can still make some horrendous errors. And in some of these cases people’s very lives are at stake. Scripture puts a very high standard for when the death penalty should be employed:

“On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.” – Deuteronomy 17:6

 

I am thoroughly unconvinced we are anywhere near this standard in most capital cases, and until we are I will be skeptical that our system allows for the appropriate protections for the innocent.

For more information on the Williamson case go to PBS Frontline: Burden of Innocence

4 comments
  1. There have been thirty some death penalty cases that have been proven false through DNA testing that wasn’t available at the time of the trial. In all cases the accused(convicted) spent many years jail. There are even more egregious cases than this one. Anyone that believes the criminal justice system has anything to do with justice in many cases is simply naive. It’s all about money and statistics.

  2. Biblical Requirement for Two Eyewitnesses?
    Dudley Sharp

    Some find that God’s mandate for justice must be very weak because capital punishment and other criminal sanctions require two witnesses for prosecution (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6). Such drastically reduces the enforcement of the law.

    Such evaluation may be unwarranted.

    According to biblical scholar and ancient linguistics expert Prof. Gleason Archer, some wrongly isolate the Hebrew ‘d (1) , “witness”, from its broad biblical context, and, therefore, may have wrongly concluded that two eyewitnesses are required in capital cases and some other criminal cases (Deuteronomy 19:15).

    As Prof. Archer observed: Did God want nearly all criminals, including murderers, to get off, scot-free, if ” . . . (they) had not taken the prudent measure of committing (their) crime where two people did not happen to be watching him?” (2)

    Prof. Archer finds that witnesses in the OT means either persons or things, as in to bear witness or provide evidence.

    Prof. Archer finds that the word “witness”, ‘ d has broad meaning, including, anyone with ” . . . pertinent knowledge concerning the crime, even though he had not actually seen it.” (Lev 5:1), which can mean such things as motive, opportunity, accomplices, overheard confessions, wiretaps, etc.; and physical evidence can also bear witness, also ‘ d (Ex 22:13), which could mean such evidence as bloody clothing, murder weapon, DNA, fingerprints, etc.; written documents may serve as evidence and witness (‘ d or ‘ dah, Jos 25:25-27), which may mean such evidence as a confession, documents showing motive or implication, etc.; or things such as monuments and memorial stones, such as gal-‘ d in Gen 31:46-49, can also bear witness.

    Archer says “there is no contravention of biblical principles in allowing such testimony, even though only one actual witness may be found, or none at all.”

    Meaning that all manner of evidence can be used to bear witness to the guilt of the crime, be that written or oral confessions, various physical evidence against the perpetrator, witnesses with knowledge of motive and other evidence against the perpetrator and/or eyewitnesses to the crime, just as witnesses, today, rightly take the stand and testify as experts/witnesses in psychiatric forensics, financial forensics, DNA, fingerprints, confessions, etc.

    It is an interesting translation, particularly in the context of: why would God intentionally provide an avenue for escape for about 99% of the crimes committed by guilty criminals, if convictions were based upon a two eyewitness requirement? Such a requirement would destroy the credibility of the justice system, undermines the government’s ability to protect its citizens and their property. Respect for the law would, necessarily, not exist. Would God establish such a unjust framework? A two eyewitness requirement may appear to contradict God’s call for justice on earth, something He made clear that He cared about.

    Biblically, God knows all things for all times, meaning a two pieces of evidence, eyewitness or other, would include DNA, fingerprints, etc. and would assist in confirming guilt in a much higher percentage of cases than a two eyewitness requirement, which suffers from the well known — different eyewitnesses giving different descriptions of the criminal(s) for the same crime, as well as the well known occasions whereby alibis, DNA and other evidence has contradicted the eyewitness accounts.

    (1) ‘d – the d should have a line over it, which I cannot place. It is important to meaning.

    (2) Dr. Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties, Zondervan Pub., p 143-145, 1982.

    Brief bio of Gleason Archer

    Gleason Leonard Archer, Jr. graduated with his Bachelor of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary where he studied Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.

    He taught languages at Suffolk University in Boston.

    Dr. Archer served as acting dean of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1948-49 and as professor of Biblical Languages, a position he held for nearly two decades (1948-1965). He taught New Testament Greek, biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Akkadian, Egyptian, and Syriac.

    From 1965-86, Gleason Archer served as professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL, then as Professor Emeritus from 1989-91.

    Some have estimated that he spoke about thirty languages.

    Limited selections:

    Dr. Archer translated part of the Book of Psalms for The Berkeley Bible (1959);
    Translated Jerome’s Commentary on Daniel (Baker, 1958).
    “The Hebrew of Daniel compared to the Qumran Sectarian Documents” (1974);
    The Linguistic Evidence for the Date of Ecclesiates (1969);
    The Aramaic of the Genesis Apocrython compared with the Aramaic of Daniel (1970);
    “A Reassemsment of the value of the Septuagint of 1 Samuel for textual Emendation in the light of the Qumran Fragments” (1981)

    A number of his summers were spent in Bible translation work for the New International Version and the New American Standard Bible.

    A Tribute to Gleason Archer: Essays on the Old Testament, a Festschrift in honor of Gleason’s seventieth birthday, was edited by Walter Kaiser and Ronald Youngblood (Moody, 1986). Dr. Archer wrote A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Moody, 1964; rev. 1974); “Isaiah” in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Moody, 1962); The Book of Job: God’s Answer to Undeserved Suffering (Baker, 1982); and Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey, with Gregory Chirichigno (Moody, 1983).

    And the list goes on and on and on.

    Education:
    1938 B.A., Harvard University (summa cum laude in Classics)
    1939 LL.B., Suffolk Law School
    1940 A.M., Harvard University
    1944 Ph.D., Harvard University
    1945 B.D., Princeton Theological Seminary

  3. Not only would the Bible have required two witnesses, but the first murderer (Cain) was not executed, but banished by the order of God. Life in prison without parole is banishment. It also accomplishes God’s higher goal, the well-being of society. Retribution, or vengeance, God claims as His alone. Even had Williams been guilty, I am less-and-less willing to execute those who are guilty of crimes like this one. At the same time, I am more willing to consider execution of gang leaders who continue to run their criminal organizations from behind bars.

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