A chilling story of wrongful conviction, focused on one man’s ordeal, and the growth of the movement to support actual innocence.
In his debut book, Rachlin ably manages a complex narrative. In 1988, when the author’s subject, Willie Grimes, was tried for a horrific sexual assault in North Carolina, “no one had any clue how often [somebody] was wrongfully convicted in America, or where, or how long he spent imprisoned.” Grimes was convicted based on a slipshod investigation and erroneous identification by an elderly, traumatized victim despite numerous witnesses to his alibi and nonviolent character. He began serving his life sentence in disbelief, eventually becoming a Jehovah’s Witness while always insisting upon his innocence. Rachlin alternates between this slow tale of Grimes’ unjust imprisonment (he would serve over 20 years) and the greater narrative of a growing consensus that protections against such convictions were inadequate. A commission was formed by several lawyers and one conservative judge who had come to realize that “wrongful conviction was a national problem…it ought to concern everyone.” This acknowledgement was partly due to the first cases of DNA exoneration, which shook the public’s trust in policing, but Rachlin particularly focuses on the determination of attorney Christine Mumma to expose the reality of wrongful conviction: “The doubts she felt now were not technicalities. It was ludicrous to think the courts couldn’t distinguish between basic guilt and innocence.” Mumma championed a law empowering the Innocence Inquiry Commission to hear wrongful conviction petitions, the first of its kind. Following an intensive investigation by the IIC into Grimes’ claim, which included discovery of concealed fingerprint evidence that pointed to the likely perpetrator, a well-known local criminal inexplicably excluded in the initial investigation, Grimes was cleared by the IIC judicial panel. Rachlin builds to this cinematic conclusion with empathetic, thorough (if sometimes gradually paced) prose and solid investigative detail.
A sprawling, powerful, unsettling longitudinal account of an overdue legal movement.