Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Innocence Commission and the Innocent Man

October 1987.  Nine at night.  Hickory, North Carolina, an hour or so west of Charlotte, they called it Little Berlin.   Carrie Eliot, widowed just under a year, 69 years old, five foot nothing on a good day, widowed, living alone.  

A man forced his way in.  "I want you. . . . I like older women. . . . They don't mess around."

He raped her.  First in the living room.  then the bedroom.

A neighbor, paid $1,000 for the tip, told police it was Willie Grimes.  Carrie Elliot, whose description didn't match Willie, picked him from a photo spread.  Then she identified him in court.  

Willie testified. He'd gone to the police station voluntarily.  Had no idea what they wanted.  They hadn't let him go. And now here he was. And damn, he never raped that woman.  Or anyone else, for that matter.

You know what happened next.  Nice white lady.  Black guy.  She says it's him. He says nope. There's no DNA.  No forensics.  Just she said.  And he denied.

Willie J. Grimes was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

* * * * *

It's not giving anything away to say that Willie Grimes didn't do it.  The title of Benjamin Rachlin's book, Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption, makes that clear.

And if you read the flap on the dust jacket, you'll realize that the title tells only half the story. Rachlin's book is as much about Willie's "relentless champion, Christine Mumma, a cofounder of North Carolina's Innocence Inquiry Commission," as it is about Willie.  That's its strength - and its weakness.

Here's Willie.  He knows he's innocent.  His family and friends know he's innocent.  His lawyer fully believes he's innocent.  But the jury didn't buy it and the judge didn't buy it and the appellate courts don't buy it and . . . .  Damn.

The guy is shuffled from prison to prison.  He has menial jobs (there are no other sorts in prison) but makes the best of them.  He tries to stay out of trouble.  He wishes his lawyer would get back to him with what's happening - or even what isn't happening.

He'd probably have been paroled, but that required rehabilitation, which required accepting responsibility for raping Carrie Elliott.  And he couldn't do that, of course, because he hadn't raped her.

Christine Mumma was a juror in the capital case of one James McDowell.  She voted for death, but really . . . .  A few years later she went to law school. First thing she did when she got there was look up the guy she'd condemned. He hadn't been killed. In fact, he was off the row.  New lawyers got his sentence reduced to life.
She felt strangely relieved he'd never been executed.  Even a criminal like McDowell deserved a better attorney than he'd had.
After law school, after one thing and another, she ended up clerking for I. Beverly Lake, chief justice of the state supreme court.  She noticed that some of the criminal cases were incompetently tried.  Maybe the guys were guilty, maybe not.  But if they were innocent . . . . No, that never happened.  But shit.

She talked to Lake who told her what she probably knew anyway.  "Guilt wasn't a question his court considered.  That had been addressed already, at trial. . . . A judge didn't overrule jurors based on his own subjective opinion."  But you know, and they knew, that some folks behind bars were being proved innocent.  So it seemed it did happen.

Meanwhile, Willie, who was innocent but without proof, sat in prison.  In time he converted.  He became a Jehovah's Witness.  

And Christine got to working with a small clinic at UNC's law school.  And then she got Lake involved and others.  And they put together a committee to try to figure out how to make convicting innocent people harder.  

Willie's case eventually made it to Christine's file cabinet.  Where it sat because while it seemed pretty clear that his was a good innocence case, there wasn't the evidence to help him.  There just wasn't anything she could do.

And then she dragged that commission kicking and screaming into actually trying to figure out how to get North Carolina to make a serious effort to undo past wrongful convictions.  

Which eventually led (as you learned from the dust jacket) to North Carolina's Innocence Inquiry Commission.  Which is something extraordinary.*

And as you might imagine, after, years and years and false starts and dead ends.  YIPPEE!  The NCII gets its second exoneration.  And it's Willie.

And it's all very cool.

Rachlin tells the stories in alternating chapters until the end when they merge.  It's an effective narrative technique, and he tells the stories well.  That's especially true as he reports on the rape and what passes for an investigation and the trial.  And it's true as he follow's Christine's efforts to create something new in North Carolina.  And it's true when the strands come together at the end.

But the day to day of Willie's life in prison.  All 24 years of it.  Too often not so much.  It's not surprising.  It's hard to make the quotidian - even the prison quotidian - fascinating.  There are moments, but they don't tend to get developed.  An then there's another visit from his Jehovah's Witness teachers.

I'm carping, and probably shouldn't.  It's not how I'd have told the story.  But that's not the test.

So let's go with this.  You know, if you're among the people who read this blawg, that the legal system fucks up more than its fair share of the time.  Too damn many factually innocent folks are in prison - often leaving the actual criminals to prey on others.  Willie Grimes's story of innocence eventually recognized is, in that sense, nothing much new.  

By itself, it's one of those long New Yorker articles.  But it's not by itself.  it's connected to Christine Mumma's effort to do something not just for him but for a conception of justice.  That's something to write home about.  

It's something, too, to read a book about.  Ghost of the Innocent Man is that book.

* And unique.  There are, scattered around the country in various prosecutors' offices, conviction integrity units.  Some of which actually seem to function - though others pretty clearly don't.  But no other state has an actual, statutory Commission and a procedure for locating and exonerating.

No comments:

Post a Comment