A new book by Concord native Benjamin Rachlin, Ghost of the Innocent Man, tells a story of wrongful conviction and exoneration. We learn about the saga of Willie Grimes, imprisoned for 24 years for a rape he did not commit, and his legal fight for freedom. Rachlin says it's one of many similar cases in recent years, thanks to expanded use of DNA evidence.
GUEST: Benjamin Rachlin, author of Ghost of the Innocent Man.
Benjamin Rachlin will discuss Ghost of the Innocent Man at Gibson's Bookstore in Concord on Thursday, Sept. 7 at 5:30 p.m.
(Interview excerpts edited for clarity.)
On how Rachlin views our criminal justice system, after spending four years examining the deep injustice done to Willie Grimes:
People say the criminal justice justice system is broken. The system isn't broken. The criminal system is malformed. “Broken” suggests there was a time when things worked perfectly -- when we were never getting it wrong and then something went off the rails. That's not the case. We know now that we have been convicting some of the wrong people from the very beginning, which means that the goal isn't to repair it, the goal is to improve it.
And in case that seems sort of daunting and impossible, reforms are staring us right in the face. North Carolina is at the forefront of this effort. And that's part of what makes the book and Willie's story so extraordinary -- because it's not just about individual actors, it's about imperfect human understanding, which develops over time.
On how Willie Grimes, during his long incarceration, managed to not let his anger and his distress overwhelm him. Part of that process was refusing to participate in a program that would have taken 12 years off his sentence, but would have also required him to admit guilt:
Ultimately, he recognized a choice: Either he was going to let anger and regret and bitterness destroy him, which would be understandable, or he was going to have to kind of remake himself as a different kind of person. He was going to have to find some way to become a whole person. Part of that was becoming a Jehovah's Witness. He became quite religious. Part of it was in recommitting himself to doubling down on honesty. And so he refused to lie. Again and again, he was offered: Just sign this form, and we can move on. And he refused. Part of the deal he had made with himself was: I'm going to be the best person I can be regardless of the circumstance.
On how to interpret the estimate that 4% of prisoners nationwide may be wrongfully convicted:
Right now there are a little more than two million Americans in jail or prison. Four percent of that is 80,000 people.
I hope that the book and Willie’s story -- and the inside story of how this unfolded in North Carolina -- can help get that story out, and that more states including New Hampshire can take a serious look at that possibility. In North Carolina there was an extraordinary collection of individuals who came together for a common cause and in a time of real need. And that need is national, not just local, and it includes places like New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont. It includes California and Texas; it includes everywhere. This is happening around America, and it's just that North Carolina is the only one to address it in this really extraordinary way -- head on.