INTERVIEW: "John Grisham and the state of criminal justice," interviewed by Bill Keller, published by "The Marshall Project on January 2, 2017. (Bill Keller is editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project. Keller worked for The New York Times from 1984 to 2014 as a correspondent, editor, and op-ed columnist. As a correspondent, he covered the collapse of the Soviet Union, winning a Pulitzer Prize, and the end of white rule in South Africa. From July 2003 until September 2011, he was the executive editor of The Times.)
John Grisham is... well, you know who John Grisham is. His 29th legal thriller, “The Whistler”, a tale of corruption in the judiciary, sits in Grisham’s customary seat atop the current New York Times best-seller list. It prompted Janet Maslin, one of the paper’s book critics, to write that the author has “fought harder for truth, justice and the American way than anyone this side of Superman.” And not just in his novels. He answered questions from The Marshall Project by email...
“The Innocent Man” told the story of Ron Williamson, convicted of a 1982 rape and murder in Ada, Okla., and exonerated in 1999. A subplot concerned another Ada murder case, which ended in the conviction of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot. Efforts to have their convictions overturned have been unsuccessful, at least partly on procedural grounds; the court ruled that lawyers waited too long to file a complaint of prosecutorial misconduct. Can you update your personal involvement in these two cases, and tell us what lessons you derived from them?
"I received Christmas cards last week from both Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, so we keep in touch. They have now been in prison for 31 years, serving hard time for a murder committed by someone else. Both are model prisoners. Tommy has been recommended for parole at least twice, but turned down by the board in Oklahoma. Both have excellent teams of lawyers who continue to work for their release. Their stories are heartbreaking."
What lessons should be learned from the Ward and Fontenot cases?
"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, knowing full well that a complete investigation would clear him. It doesn’t work that way. He’s been in prison for 31 years. About 25 percent of the exonerations won by the Innocence Project involve false confessions. The cure is simple: Make the police video record the interrogation, from start to finish. The cameras are in the room, they just don’t use them for the first fifteen hours."
PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic" section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at: http://www.thestar.com/topic/