During his 10 years as a criminal lawyer in a small town in Mississippi, John Grisham never had a client that he considered to be wrongfully convicted.
The system, as he saw it, was fair and reasonable.
It wasn’t until years later when he was reading The New York Times and stumbled across an obituary for Ronald Williamson that he realized the legal system needed to change.
“[Williamson] was standing in the courtroom in a big photo — black and white — looking confused in a bad suit and tie, white hair, 50 years old and the headline said ‘Ron Williamson, freed from death row, dies at the age of 51’,” he said. “I was stunned. How did this guy end up on death row when he was innocent?”
That question led Grisham to write “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town,” and also led him to advocate for the wrongly convicted.
The New York Times best-selling author and advocate was the keynote speaker at the annual Eve Carson Lecture on Feb. 28. During the hourlong event, Grisham took questions from the audience and was interviewed by Daniel Wallace, the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor and director of creative writing in the College of Arts & Sciences.
Co-sponsored by the Carolina Women’s Leadership Council and UNC Student Government’s Carolina Roundtable committee, the lecture at Hill Hall was presented by the Eve Carson Lecture Series, which honors the memory of the late student body president who first established the program as the “Distinguished Speakers Series” in 2007.
Each year, the student-run lecture series brings national and international speakers with distinguished ideals and accomplishments to the University.
“We are here to celebrate Eve Carson and the heel print that she left on the UNC’s campus,” said Aklesia Maereg, co-chair of the Carolina Roundtable.
The author of more than more 40 books, Grisham is best known for his legal thrillers — nine of which have become films. There are currently over 300 million John Grisham books in print worldwide.
Among them is his only non-fiction book, “The Innocent Man,” which was ultimately turned into a Netflix series.
Grisham has become a vocal advocate for the Innocence Project, which works to free innocent people convicted of crimes. He is currently on the board of directors for the organization.
“We had 350 exonerations, which is only scratching the surface because there are thousands of innocent people in prison and we’re working, one at a time, slowly to get them out,” he said. “It’s very easy to send an innocent person to prison. It’s almost impossible to get one out.”