A Wrongful Conviction and an Innocence Commission

Book review: Ghost of the Innocent Man, by Benjamin Rachlin (Amazon / Book Depository)

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

Amazon / Book Depository

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16 thoughts on “A Wrongful Conviction and an Innocence Commission

    1. I know, I can’t imagine hearing a story like this and not being deeply affected. There was something severely broken here, the details of what went wrong in the investigation and everything around his trial are just ridiculous. It’s definitely an important one and worth knowing about, and the two stories were obviously related so it made sense to include the legal aspects. I just wish it had been as compellingly told as Willie’s was!

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  1. I am always so happy when I see a new review on your site. I so desperately want to believe, completely unrealistically, that justice systems are fair and mistake-proof, that in many cases I cling to the idea that they got the right man anyway – and Netflix isn’t helping with The Staircase and Making a Murderer (though in the latter Avery’s original conviction was indeed wrong). It’s just so awful to think of an innocent person deprived of their liberty. There have been some appalling cases here in the UK too, including the entrapment by an undercover police woman of the man for Rachel Nickell’s murder – outlined in Jon Ronson’s book about psychopaths. Books like this are an important reminder that we cannot be complacent and that those working in our justice system need to be subject close scrutiny at all times.

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    1. Oh thanks!!! You’re so sweet! I’m with you, I desperately want to believe that these systems work as they should, but there are so many of those heinous stories it’s mind-boggling. And complicated because I also think sometimes bad techniques or procedure still end up with the right man, like you said — I felt that way about the Staircase and I’m so on the fence with Making a Murderer! I go back and forth on that one. But totally agree his original conviction was wrong and I think his nephew’s is too. Have you watched The Confession Tapes on Netflix? Some of those cases are also so suspicious with the possibility of false confessions muddying things up (although in at least one of the cases they covered I also thought it was right, just questionable undercover techniques.)

      Scrutiny is definitely key, I’m glad these commissions and groups like Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative (you must read his Just Mercy if you haven’t yet, it’s amazing if also infuriating) are doing good work in reexamining convictions where there are questions.

      I remember reading about the undercover thing in the Rachel Nickell case in The Psychopath Test, so messed up! I felt awful for that guy.

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  2. It’s such a terrifying scenario isn’t it? This sounds great in highlighting this case, but as you say – how many more people are out there in the same position? It’s why I could never support the death penalty.

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    1. It really is terrifying. Just one person saying a physical description of a suspect kind of sounds like you and it’s downhill from there. I’m glad this one had a resolution of his exoneration, but still…it’s just happened so much.

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  3. I have found your blog because you visited a few of my posts!
    Thanks so much for showing your interest in my book reviews.
    I have a few books on my TBR at the moment (blogpost:#TBR Plan of Action) I have to read this year but…
    am seriously considering reading only non-fiction when that list is finished.
    I have read some amazing books in the past few weeks (Stamped from the Beginning (I.X. Kendi) and Frederick Douglass (D. Blight). Fiction does not give me the same buzz as no-fiction does!
    Your blog will give me some great reading suggestons!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, we connected over Nonfiction November and I love following what you’re reading, you find so many good ones 🙂 I wholeheartedly support reading all nonfiction! I know exactly what you mean about nonfiction making you feel differently. I hope I can send some good suggestions your way too!

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  4. I never finished Just Mercy because I had the streaming audio book from the library, and when I ran out of time on my item, it went to someone else with a hold. Dang it! However, I don’t know that I personally feel fatigue at how unjust the justice system is in the United States. I think it’s important that we be reminded constantly, because while we’re sitting at home feeling “tired” of such stories, there are so many people sitting in prison living what we feel fatigued by. I hope you don’t interpret my comment as a criticism of you — it’s definitely not, and I know that I personally get donation fatigue (there is ALWAYS a cause that needs money).

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    1. Maybe my reason for mentioning the concept of innocence fatigue wasn’t clear, as I didn’t mean to insinuate that I felt it; I don’t. It’s discussed in Just Mercy and shocked me as I never knew it existed, I can’t imagine anyone reacting to these stories that way. What you said was basically what I was trying to convey — it’s important to be reminded of these cases even if you’ve heard similar ones a hundred times before.

      Definitely get back on the holds list for Just Mercy, it’s one of the most affecting books I’ve ever read.

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