Wrongful conviction narratives are incomparably terrifying. They leave the reader with a lingering unease, that if this could happen to the person profiled, on flimsy or nonexistent evidence in a complex yet error-filled justice system, it could happen to anyone. It’s happening to others who don’t have books written about them from the safe distance of being finally free. Author and attorney Bryan Stevenson notes that we tend to get “innocence fatigue” with too many similar stories clamoring for justice, but they’re inarguably worth knowing about.
In Ghost of the Innocent Man, author Benjamin Rachlin examines the case of Willie Grimes, a black North Carolina man tried and convicted for a rape he didn’t commit in 1988. He would go on to serve more than 20 years in prison before being exonerated. In this context, Rachlin tells a story that clearly emphasizes: this is a victim too.
The commission had forgotten why the courts were even in place, he nearly shouted. Didn’t they know? The courts existed to provide justice for victims—
Before he could finish, Beverly Lake interrupted him. “An innocent person who is in prison is a victim,” Lake said.
Rachlin writes in gripping narrative style relating Willie’s story — of his conviction, given a life sentence based on a shoddy investigation and eyewitness testimony of the victim, who was older and completely traumatized, and which should have been easily discounted in light of major physical points. It exposes the mishandling and contamination of evidence and any number of other outrages in the investigation and Wilie’s case. He also follows the trajectory of his years in prison, and we get a glimpse of the draconian bureaucracy involved in advancing even the smallest of steps.
Willie is shuffled from one penitentiary to another with his reasonable requests and needs defiantly ignored by the system. His requests to change facilities wind through a frustratingly arcane process, and decisions are made seemingly without reason. It’s heavy — Willie’s experience is awful, disturbingly underscored by his innocence, which he consistently maintained, and his quiet, passive demeanor.
It’s also maddening, as I learned things related to justice and our system that do make you fatigued, but at the overwhelming incompetence. Like this:
In 2004, Congress had passed something called the Justice for All Act, requiring that all biological evidence be preserved in federal cases, but no equivalent mandate existed for local or state cases, which were far more common. And some officials still weren’t sure what biological evidence even was. “That would include tree bark, right?” one courthouse official, in Houston, had asked a Post reporter.
This is a dual narrative, and the story of Willie’s time in prison and fight through the system is interspersed with chapters about a lawyer named Christine Mumma, who founded the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, alongside fellow attorneys and a judge.
This commission’s work is incredibly important — it’s an unbiased state organization dedicated only to finding the truth, which seems like it should be what everyone’s doing already anyway, but unfortunately isn’t — and getting justice when an original conviction didn’t properly serve it. Mumma comes across as a dedicated, tireless fighter and the Commission’s work has been groundbreaking and endlessly admirable.
But the chapters around it were less compelling. They’re heavily detail-focused, as are Willie’s chapters and the style of Rachlin’s writing in general, but where detail greatly enhanced the telling of Willie’s personal story, they bogged down the rest into near unreadability. I realized I was avoiding picking up the book sometimes, and it was when one of the chapters about the work that went into establishing the IIC was waiting.
On the other hand, Willie’s story is told exceptionally. Written with sensitivity and insight, Rachlin’s storytelling and attention to detail make his plight palpable in all its surreal horror, from beginning to, mercifully, a more just end.
Absolutely worth reading but beware that without a deep interest in legal, procedural elements and the bureaucratic process and numerous hurdles that arise in founding such a commission, there are some dry stretches. 3.25/5
Ghost of the Innocent Man:
A True Story of Trial and Redemption
by Benjamin Rachlin
published August 15, 2017 by Little, Brown