Review: Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption

Defense attorney Ed de Torres, the North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services and the Center on Actual Innocence all believed Willie J. Grimes was innocent of the rape for which he was convicted in 1988. Appeals were filed on his behalf, but despite the police investigation being careless and the witness identification suspicious, no part of his trial created cause for a reversal. The process functioned correctly, but the outcome was wrong. DNA was in its infancy in 1988, and, later, when the Center on Actual Innocence attempted to investigate Grimes's case, they were unable to locate any of the physical evidence from the original trial; officials could not explain what happened to it. For nearly a quarter of a century, everyone's hands were tied; no one was able to do anything to help Grimes.

Christine Mumma was a clerk for North Carolina Supreme Court justice Beverly Lake when she became frustrated with cases where individuals' guilt seemed questionable. Lake reminded her that the case of Herrera v. Collins found that the higher court " 'does not focus on whether the trier of fact made the correct guilt or innocence determination, but rather whether it made a rational decision to convict or acquit....' By the time a defendant reached Lake's chambers, his guilt was no longer the question." But Mumma simply couldn't accept this.

Ghost of the Innocent Man is the story of Grimes's fight to prove his innocence and Mumma's battle to improve the catastrophic situation of scant recourse when a jury's determination of guilt is wrong. Her work with people from all sides of the courtroom and along the political spectrum helped found the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission (IIC). Without the IIC, Grimes and many others like him would doubtless still be in jail.

Author Benjamin Rachlin's thorough investigation of the subject provides an astonishing look at the United States justice system that will educate and incense readers. Likewise, his study of the heroic individuals working--or more often simply volunteering--tirelessly to mend an inhumane and flawed system will inspire hope. Rachlin spotlights how these people put humanity above profit, prestige and pride.

With these heroes, Rachlin's work of nonfiction reads like a legal thriller. His vivid language leads the audience down prison hallways as well as through despairing minds. Rachlin also reminds his readers that the imprisoned are still human beings through his honesty, empathy and descriptions: "Week after week, [Grimes's] memories strained an inch further--their colors bleached a shade paler, their voices calling a decibel softer--until he had worn them nearly threadbare."

Ghost of the Innocent Man proves that Appeals judge Learned Hand was tragically mistaken in 1923, when he stated, "Our dangers do not lie in too little tenderness to the accused. Our procedure has always been haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream." In the United States, where no fewer than 2,000 convicted individuals have been exonerated since 1989, the story of Willie J. Grimes illustrates just how dangerous Learned Hand's erroneous belief is. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Shelf Talker: The story of a wrongly convicted man in North Carolina parallels the creation of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission in this startling examination of the U.S. justice system.

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