Three Things John Grisham’s The Confession Teaches Us About Wrongful Convictions
A few years before John Grisham’s The Confession was published, I wrote a 50-page brief to a United States District Court judge asking him to declare the death penalty unconstitutional. I represented a client who was facing the death penalty, and I was both morally opposed to the death penalty and concerned about the execution of innocent people. My brief was not the first to ask that the death penalty be ruled unconstitutional and certainly not the last. But it was one of the first briefs filed after the Supreme Court’s Roper v. Simmons case to argue that the death penalty should be ruled unconstitutional because innocent individuals were being wrongfully executed.
In the landmark Roper case, Justice Kennedy wrote that it is unconstitutional to execute individuals who committed crimes when they were juveniles. His reasoning was extremely important and I relied on it in making my argument about innocence. Justice Kennedy argued that courts must refer to the “evolving standards of decency” that mark the “progress of a maturing society.” In plain English, he argued that it may have been morally acceptable at one point in our history to execute individuals who committed crimes as juveniles, but things have changed.
Justice Kennedy stated that we need to look at how our moral standards are evolving. He noted that in the course of a decade, most state legislatures, as well as public opinion, had moved away from executing individuals who committed crimes as juveniles. I relied on this argument to claim that state legislatures and public opinion had also come to realize that numerous innocent individuals were being wrongfully convicted and executed. At the time, many states had abolished the death penalty, placed moratoriums on executions, or greatly reduced the number of executions based on concerns about erroneous convictions. Courts, governors, legislatures, and the public were beginning to recognize the significant racial disparities in the application of the death penalty and the increasing number of death row inmates who were being exonerated.
In The Confession, John Grisham, a former lawyer and active member of the Innocence Project, explores the inherent flaws in our death penalty process. Grisham has extensive knowledge about our legal process, and many of the plotlines and themes in The Confession are taken from real-life situations in death penalty cases. Here are three important things that Grisham’s novel teaches us.
- Innocent Individuals Have Been Executed
In The Confession, a black teenage football star, Donté Drumm, is accused of abducting, raping, and killing a white teenage cheerleader, Nicole Yarber. It was rumored that the two were dating. We learn early on in the novel that Donté did not date Nicole, and he had nothing to do with her rape or killing.
It turns out that a serial sex offender named Travis Boyette killed and raped Nicole. Boyette admitted this in confidence to a member of the clergy. The Confession centers on whether this clergyman can convince Boyette to tell Donté’s lawyer that he killed Nicole.
Boyette goes back and forth on whether he wants to tell his story to Donté’s lawyer and the world. As the execution draws near, Boyette finally relents. Donté’s lawyers race to the courthouse. and a video of Boyette’s confession is sent to the governor. But it’s too late. The courts and governor deny his last-minute pleas for justice. Tragically, an innocent Donté Drumm is executed.
The Confession accurately portrays the challenges in trying to get appeals courts and governors to stay (postpone) an execution based on a claim of actual innocence. As strange as it may sound, under the law, a claim of actual innocence is often not enough to stay an execution when a defendant’s legal rights have been exhausted. This is the law even though, since 1973, 162 people have been released from death row based on evidence that they were in fact innocent. *
- Racial Disparity and Injustice Play a Significant Role in the Death Penalty
Grisham does a masterful job of telling a story about racial injustice in a small Texas town. The town is divided along racial lines, and this has grave consequences for Donté. Racism results in his confession, wrongful conviction, and death sentence. Among other things, the former boyfriend of Nicole, a white teenager named Joey Gamble, lied to the all-white investigative and prosecutorial team saying that he saw Donté’s van near the place Nicole was abducted. He called the detective anonymously and falsely claimed that Donté was the one who killed Nicole.
Based on this uncorroborated tip, the detective then proceeded to coerce Donté and his close friend into signing false confessions. The detective lied about the actual evidence he had and lied about the fact that Donté had failed a polygraph test.
Grisham’s novel provides a close-up view of how racism impacts law enforcement, courts, and public opinion. The detectives and prosecutors willingly accuse a young black teenager of raping and killing a white teenager even though there is no real evidence to support it.
In the United States, 54 percent of death row inmates are black or Hispanic. Of the 308 people executed in interracial murders, 94 percent were black defendants like Donté accused of killing white victims like Nicole. In only 6 percent of cases, white defendants were executed for killing black victims. In and of itself, this statistic might not be definitive, but when coupled with the extensive body of research on race and death penalty sentencing, it is clear that race plays a poisonous role.
- A Handful of States Account for the Majority of Executions
Grisham’s novel takes us inside the small-town politics of a southern town. He allows us to look inside the corrupt local police station and tainted courthouse. He also gives us a glimpse of the politics swirling around the Texas governor’s office and state legislature. We see how elections impact the local judges and prosecutors as well as statewide officials. Grisham, who was born and raised in the South, demonstrates his grave concerns over how the cultural and political influences in places like Texas impact the legal process. It is not surprising that the author picked Texas as the setting for his novel. Since 1976, Texas alone has executed 553 individuals and accounts for 37 percent of all executions nationwide, while the South in general accounts for more than 80 percent of all executions.
The Confession shines a bright light on the injustices surrounding the death penalty. As I was finishing writing this piece, an article came across my computer screen saying that Texas executed another black man the previous day, one accused of committing a crime at a young age. This time it was Christopher Young. Young admitted to accidentally killing a storekeeper during a botched robbery attempt. He was extremely intoxicated during the robbery, having drunk twenty-four beers and used cocaine, and claimed that he thought the storekeeper was reaching for his gun so he fired his. The victim’s family did not want Young, who was remorseful for the killing, to be executed. In his last statement, he said that he loved the victim’s family just like they loved him.
Christopher Young was the eighth person to be executed in Texas this year—one more than all of last year.
*All death penalty statistics are from the Death Penalty Information Center, www.deathpenaltyinfo.org.