Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to listen to author and advocate John Grisham participate as part of a panel at Wake Forest University. Grisham, who made his name writing about lawyers and the legal system, has turned his attention in recent years to instances of social injustice, wrongful convictions, and efforts to reform the judicial process.
In a highly engaging hour, Grisham detailed numerous instances where people were wrongfully accused and incarcerated. The Innocence Project, a nonprofit that seeks to exonerate such individuals, has successfully intervened in 450 cases in recent years.
Grisham, however, spent most of his time outlining best practices and suggested reforms that he believes will reduce the number of wrongful convictions in U.S. courts. Rather than focusing all efforts on overturning bad decisions, he hopes his advocacy will ultimately prevent such rulings from taking place. The drive behind his zeal was clear.
“I’m struck by a scenario where we wake up one day with the clear knowledge that we executed the wrong person,” he said, noting that advancements in DNA science will someday make such determinations possible. “What do we do then as a society?”
Such a scenario serves as the underlying plot for his next fictional work, The Confession. His efforts to fight wrongful convictions, however, goes back to his work on The Innocent Man, a nonfictional work detailing the life of an Oklahoma man who spent more than a decade behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
Many of his proposals would address how investigations are conducted. A key first step would include the creation of a national association of forensic scientists, which would serve as a starting point for replacing “junk science” with consistent standards for criminal investigations.
Grisham pushed for police departments to record entire interrogations – not just the “15 minutes” when a confession is made. “False confessions fascinate me because no one believes they would confess to a crime they didn’t commit,” he said, directly addressing the audience. “After 15 hours in an interrogation, with no help and constant threats, some of you might break and say something to get out of the room.”
Judges also hold tremendous responsibility, charged with keeping false confessions, junk science and other bad practices out of the courtroom. “I get frustrated with the judges,” he admitted. He also supports allowing a suspect to plead guilty to get a life sentence rather than exhaust thousands of dollars pursuing a capital case.
Grisham also handed out criticism for most states, recommending that they come up with legal penalties and compensation policies to address wrongful convictions. He touted North Carolina, which recently made the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission a permanent fixture. The state-run agency is devoted to verifying claims of innocence by convicted felons.
Otherwise, it may take an increase in civil lawsuits to bring about change. “Litigation can bring about social good,” Grisham said. “You start letting these cities and counties and states get hit with big lawsuits – that’s how people pay attention.”
Though personally against the death penalty, Grisham made it clear that he is “not a bleeding heart” looking to overturn every case. In fact, he said during a media session that DNA evidence presented to the Innocence Project actually validates convictions for roughly half of those seeking the nonprofit’s help. “I find that incredibly frustrating,” he said.
In the end, Grisham said that the end goal for all parties – from the first investigator at the crime scene to everyone involved in the trial -- should be the pursuit of justice rather than “a brass knuckle fight to win.” He added, “If you get the right person the first time, you are going to reduce crimes and save lives.”
To view video of the panel discussion, visit here.