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During the last three decades, more than two thousand American citizens have been wrongfully convicted. Ghost of the Innocent Man brings us one of the most dramatic of those cases and provides the clearest picture yet of the national scourge of wrongful conviction and of the opportunity for meaningful reform.
When the final gavel clapped in a rural southern courtroom in the summer of 1988, Willie J. Grimes, a gentle spirit with no record of violence, was shocked and devastated to be convicted of first-degree rape and sentenced to life imprisonment. Here is the story of this everyman and his extraordinary quarter-century-long journey to freedom, told in breathtaking and sympathetic detail, from the botched evidence and suspect testimony that led to his incarceration to the tireless efforts to prove his innocence and the identity of the true perpetrator. These were spearheaded by his relentless champion, Christine Mumma, a cofounder of North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission. That commission — unprecedented at its inception in 2006 — remains a model organization unlike any other in the country, and one now responsible for a growing number of exonerations.
With meticulous, prismatic research and pulse-quickening prose, Benjamin Rachlin presents one man’s tragedy and triumph. The jarring and unsettling truth is that the story of Willie J. Grimes, for all its outrage, dignity, and grace, is not a unique travesty. But through the harrowing and suspenseful account of one life, told from the inside, we experience the full horror of wrongful conviction on a national scale. Ghost of the Innocent Man is both rare and essential, a masterwork of empathy. The book offers a profound reckoning not only with the shortcomings of our criminal justice system but also with its possibilities for redemption.
“Remarkable . . . Captivating . . . Rachlin is a skilled storyteller.”-New York Times Book Review
“A gripping legal-thriller mystery . . . Profoundly elevates good-cause advocacy to greater heights — to where innocent lives are saved.”-USA Today
“A crisply written page turner.”-NPR
This is a work of nonfiction. I have changed no names or dates. Dialogue in quotation marks is drawn from trial or interview transcripts; police, hospital, or prison records; personal or legal correspondence; prepared remarks or meeting minutes; or the recollections of those present. Where a person recalled the gist of a discussion but not its particular words, I have rendered dialogue without quotation marks. Where a person's thoughts or feelings are described, these were recalled afterward in writing, testimony, or interviews. Though of course I have interpreted events, I have done so as faithfully as possible.
More detailed information appears in the Sources.
Firm and Unequivocal
Just after nine thirty on Wednesday morning, July 6, 1988, as 90 percent humidity clamped down outside, Judge Kenneth Griffin settled onto his bench in the Catawba County Justice Center and brought court to session. Seen from the road, the justice center was a concrete slab of a building with asymmetrical columns, a modest parking lot, and tall, slender windows, enjambed beside a sheriff's office and detention facility. The entire complex sat shouting distance from a gas station, two fast-food restaurants, and a Speed Lube Express. All the rest was rolling farmland.
"Good morning," Judge Griffin said. Almost nine months earlier, up in Hickory, a town of fewer than thirty thousand residents, in the western third of the state, an elderly woman had been assaulted in her home. "The State of North Carolina has accused Mr. Willie James Grimes…" He paused and looked toward the defense table. "Hold up your hand, Mr. Grimes." As the man raised his arm, Griffin read the charges: two counts of first-degree rape, one count each of first-degree burglary and kidnapping. "To each of these charges, Mr. Grimes, through his attorney, Mr. de Torres, has entered pleas of not guilty," Judge Griffin told the jury. He turned the proceedings over to Bill Johnson, an assistant district attorney, who called Carrie Elliott to the stand.
What followed was unsettling testimony. Already petite, Carrie seemed even smaller on the witness stand, where she occupied barely a third of the wooden box. Beside Judge Griffin's elevated bench, she seemed a tiny fraction of his height. As apparent was her age; she was older than the judge, who himself was over sixty. It was easy to imagine her overwhelmed by an assailant. Johnson led her to recount the facts of that night in October: where Carrie lived, that she hadn't expected any visitors, her assailant's demand for something to eat. "How was the intruder dressed?"
"He had on a green shirt," Carrie remembered. "And jeans, or blue pants."
Next Johnson established the reason for having brought two separate counts of rape: the couch and the bed were distinct episodes, and he wanted Carrie to lead the jury through each of them. "Approximately how long did this intercourse on the couch last?" he asked. "Do you recall?"
Carrie didn't. "It seemed like forever to me," she said. "It was a horrible nightmare."
"And how far away was his face from yours?"
"Right up over me."
"Were you able to get a good look at this individual?"
"Yes, sir," Carrie affirmed, nodding. Had she noticed anything unusual about the man's appearance, or any identifying marks? She nodded again. She had seen a mole on his face, and that he'd needed a shave. The mole was on the right side, which Carrie recalled because she had broken a fingernail trying to scratch at it. "I fought with him the whole way," she said.
Since that night in October, Carrie added, she had seen the man again at his probable-cause hearing, and had recognized him there, too. She had also seen him in a photograph police had shown her. Johnson wanted to know more about that photograph—how had it been displayed, and how easily had she recognized Grimes in it? But Grimes's lawyer objected, and Judge Griffin sustained. Uncertain how much follow-up the judge would permit him, Johnson asked that the jury be dismissed briefly so this could be worked out in private. Once the jurors filed out, Johnson resumed his questions, knowing to proceed carefully. If the judge ruled his questions fair, Johnson would be allowed to ask them again with the jury present. Otherwise what followed would remain inadmissible.
"Mrs. Elliott, you say that you were shown photographs," he began. "And out of the photographs, picked out one of the attacker."
"Yes, sir," Carrie confirmed.
"Who showed you that photograph?"
That was Sergeant Bryant, Carrie told him, of the Hickory Police Department. Bryant had traveled to Claremont, where Carrie was staying with her sister-in-law, to show her the lineup. There Carrie had recognized Grimes's photo. "And he said, 'Are you sure?'" Carrie remembered. "And I said, 'I am positive.'"
"I'm going to show you what I am marking as State Exhibit One," Johnson advised, which was a series of photographs he expected would look familiar. Offering the lineup to her, he said, "And I ask if you recognize that."
CARRIE: No, sir.
JOHNSON: You don't recognize that?
CARRIE: No, sir.
JOHNSON: You say you made an identification of this person.
CARRIE: Yes, sir.
JOHNSON: Of the person who attacked you.
JOHNSON: Do you recognize any of these pictures on State Exhibit One as the picture that you identified?
CARRIE: I saw one that looked like it.
JOHNSON: For the record—this State Exhibit One has six windows on it, with six photographs, and beneath each window is a number. Is that correct?
CARRIE: Yes, sir.
JOHNSON: Would you tell us the number of the photograph you say looks like your attacker?
CARRIE: That looks like him, over there.
JOHNSON: Do you see any of these photographs—are you able to tell from these photographs the person that attacked you?
CARRIE: They don't look like any of them now.
JOHNSON: Do any of these photographs look like the one from which you made an identification?
CARRIE: They were in little blocks like that.
JOHNSON: Are you able to tell us whether any of these is the one that you identified?
CARRIE: Hard to see any difference.
Answers like these wouldn't help before a jury. Johnson chose an easier question. "At the time of your identification," he tried, "how certain were you of this individual that you identified?"
"I knew him," Carrie answered, nodding resolutely. "I am certain that he was the one."
This was better. "Here in the courtroom," Johnson asked, "do you see the person that attacked you that night?"
"Yes, sir," Carrie said.
"Where is that person?"
"Right down there," Carrie replied, gesturing toward the defense table. "Beside the guy with the red shirt on."
Only two people sat at the defense table. Grimes, the defendant, had been allowed to change out of his prison jumpsuit for trial and now wore a red button-down shirt. Next to him sat de Torres, his lawyer. Carrie was pointing at de Torres. "I remember him," Carrie continued, not realizing her error. "I will never forget that picture of him over me. I will never be able to erase that."
Johnson was stunned. Of course Carrie meant Grimes, he knew. She had gotten confused. De Torres, who was staring in disbelief, was a white man, and he and Grimes didn't look anything alike.
To minimize her mistake, Johnson rushed for a follow-up. "When you say 'picture,' you are talking about a mental picture," he mumbled. "Not a photograph?"
"Yes," Carrie told him. "What I saw with my own eyes."
"How positive are you of your identification of him?" Johnson asked.
"I am positive."
"That is all for now," Johnson said, and sat down.
De Torres, rising shakily for cross-examination, decided he would address the photographic lineup first. Since Carrie didn't recognize any of the photographs shown to her nine months earlier by police, none of them should count as evidence, he argued. This would render Carrie's first identification of his client inadmissible in court, a ruling certain to undermine Grimes having been implicated in the first place. It would also mean Carrie's only remaining identification of Grimes was the one she could make in person. This de Torres felt sure he could discredit, having just now himself been identified wrongly as her attacker. He asked Carrie whether she recognized the lineup Johnson had held a moment earlier.
Carrie admitted she hadn't, but insisted it didn't matter. "I know the man that beat me," she told him.
"Did you recognize any of the photographs you were just shown as the same photographs you were shown by Officer Bryant?"
"Well, they look the same," Carrie said. "They were in little blocks like that." De Torres, unpersuaded, pressed for details. "If you had been through what I had been through," Carrie scolded him. "They had just brought me from the hospital."
"You said that the person who assaulted you took off a shirt," de Torres noted, changing course. "A green shirt. Did you notice any tattoos, or any marks on his body?"
"Did you notice any other marks anywhere else on him, other than the mole?"
This would be valuable later, de Torres knew. For now he had seen enough. "Your Honor," he urged, turning toward Judge Griffin, "the admission of the photographs, and her identification, should not be allowed in evidence. She does not have the ability to match any photographs with anyone that is here in the courtroom. I think that the photo lineup, and any testimony concerning that, should be suppressed. It should not be admissible in this case at all."
Judge Griffin considered this. "All right," he said. He instructed the court reporter to mark down that a full examination had been conducted, in the absence of the jury, regarding the photographic identification of Willie Grimes. "Based upon the foregoing, the court concludes State Exhibit One"—the photographic lineup—"is hereby excluded from evidence in this trial. However, the witness had ample opportunity to observe the defendant in her home on the night in question, for a considerable length of time. This was sufficient to form a reliable impression of him. The witness had a high degree of concentration, her attention was focused on him, and her observations are a reasonable and accurate description of him. Her certainty is firm and unequivocal. It is now therefore ordered that the defendant's objection to the photograph identification is allowed. But the identification of the defendant by the witness is competent to be received in trial."
Whether Judge Griffin had noticed Carrie's identification of the wrong man, de Torres couldn't tell.
Jurors filed back into court, where Judge Griffin decided they had seen enough for the morning session and recessed for lunch. When they reconvened at two, Johnson decided to let his co-counsel, Jay Meyers, present to Carrie their final questions. Meyers wanted to confirm the presence of a knife. Then, before the jury, he asked whether Carrie could see her assailant in the courtroom today. "Yes, sir," Carrie told him. Meyers asked that she point the man out. Carrie indicated the defense table. "Right there," she said.
"Objection," de Torres intervened.
"Overruled," Judge Griffin told him, and turned toward Carrie. "Let the record reflect that you are pointing to whom?"
"The one in the red shirt there," Carrie said.
"Let the record reflect that the witness pointed out Willie James Grimes," Judge Griffin announced.
"That is all," Meyers said, and sat down.
Officer Gary Lee, of the Hickory police, had worked the second patrol shift that Saturday in October, from early afternoon until midnight. After receiving a radio call, Officer Lee had arrived to Carrie Elliott's address at 9:22, where he and a partner first noticed the broken storm door. As his partner secured Carrie's apartment, Lee radioed patrol cars within reach to warn them of a potential suspect. To do this, he needed to ask Carrie for a description of her assailant. Later he recorded this in his initial crime report.
Johnson, the assistant district attorney, having reassumed lead responsibility from Meyers, wanted to know the details of that description. "Black male, approximately six feet tall," Officer Lee recalled. "Weighing between two hundred and two twenty-five. Approximately thirty-five years old. Dark skin and bushy hair." This amounted to nearly all he and Carrie had discussed that night, since Carrie had been "real distraught," Lee remembered, and his role was simply to learn the barest version of what had happened and whom to look for. Carrie had also told him that, once her assailant vanished from the apartment, she had crawled toward the back door, locked it, and groped for the telephone. But she couldn't think of the phone number for the police. Instead, she called her son, whose wife answered. It was she, Carrie's daughter-in-law, who phoned the police. All this Officer Lee marked in his report, as well as the fact that he'd canvassed the surroundings of Carrie's apartment and consulted with neighbors to the north and east. No one had seen or heard anything helpful. On item 34 of that report, "Can suspects be ID'ed," Lee had checked the line beside yes.
Secure with this timeline, Johnson turned his witness over to de Torres. De Torres asked Officer Lee whether, in Carrie's account of her assailant that night, she had described what the man was wearing. She had, Lee remembered. Jeans and a green shirt. "Did she indicate anything to you about the mole on his face?" de Torres asked.
"Not at the time," Lee answered.
"That is all," de Torres said.
While Lee was canvassing Carrie's neighborhood that night, Officer Susan Moore, also of the Hickory police, had arrived at the apartment to find Carrie agitated with "evidence of bruising that was starting to appear on her upper arms." Officer Moore proposed to drive Carrie to Catawba Memorial Hospital, but Carrie declined the offer: Carrie's son and daughter-in-law had arrived at the apartment by then, and she felt more comfortable traveling with them. Moore agreed to this, then drove behind them to the hospital, where a lengthier interview revealed further details of the assault. Because Moore had departed so soon for the hospital, she hadn't spent much time at Carrie's residence—less than five minutes, she estimated. She had barely talked with Gary Lee at all. But she remembered hearing his radioed description of the suspect: a black male, age thirty-five, six feet tall, two hundred pounds or more.
De Torres, on cross-examination, was curious; during Moore's interview with Carrie at the hospital, had Carrie mentioned her assailant having a knife? "No," Moore told him, though she thought it was possible Carrie simply hadn't thought of it. In Moore's view, Carrie had been "very distraught."
The emergency department physician that night at Catawba Memorial Hospital was Bert Crane, who confirmed the bruising on Carrie's arms and left shoulder. His records showed Carrie had arrived at the hospital at 9:51. In addition to the bruising, Crane's examination revealed a painful headache, from Carrie having been pinned during her assault, and a laceration of her posterior vaginal fourchette—a one-inch tear in the vaginal wall. The laceration was recent, Dr. Crane noticed. He agreed Carrie's injuries matched her description of the preceding hour, and conducted a formal rape examination. This involved collecting samples of Carrie's head and pubic hair, and vaginal swabs. These Crane packaged into a rape kit and turned over to the police, along with a cardboard box of clothes Carrie had worn during and after the assault. Then he stitched Carrie's tear and scheduled a follow-up for the coming Monday. By midnight Carrie was discharged, wearing fresh clothes her children had brought her and wrapped in a blanket lent by one of the nurses. Now, in court, her rape kit was introduced as State Exhibit Two. Dr. Crane recognized this as the same one from the hospital, with his signature on its label. De Torres didn't have any questions.
From the hospital, Carrie's family had driven her to the Hickory police station, where she met again with Officer Moore and her partner, Officer Jeff Blackburn. The pair of them led Carrie down the square department hallway and into a private room, to provide another full account of her assault. The details of this matched what she had shared earlier at the hospital and, before that, at the scene with Gary Lee. Officer Blackburn showed Carrie a lineup sheet with photographs of six men, but she didn't recognize any of them. Then, rising, Blackburn asked Carrie to compare the suspect's dimensions to his own. Carrie considered him for a moment, then replied that her assailant had been heavier and a little bit taller. Blackburn himself was six feet tall, a hundred and ninety-five pounds. This too was consistent with what Carrie had reported earlier. That their suspect was a little over six feet and more than two hundred pounds fit Carrie's previous assessment exactly.
De Torres wanted to know whether, during this late meeting at the police station, Carrie had mentioned any mole, or scar, on her attacker. Blackburn admitted she hadn't.
Two days after her rape, at a few minutes past noon on Monday, Carrie and her daughter-in-law returned unexpectedly to the police station to visit Sergeant Steve Bryant, supervisor of criminal investigations for the Hickory Police Department. Sergeant Bryant recognized Carrie from the previous Saturday, though he hadn't met her then, and he knew the HPD still had no suspects in her case. Carrie was visiting to share a conversation she'd had with her neighbor Linda McDowell—the same neighbor she had mistakenly guessed was knocking at her door the night of the assault. Since then Linda had stopped by Carrie's apartment to say she'd heard what had happened, and how sorry she was. The two of them got to talking. Linda thought she recognized Carrie's description of her attacker. She might know who the man was, Linda allowed, though she refused to give his name to anyone but the police, not even to Carrie herself. Carrie wanted Sergeant Bryant to know this. She also wanted to tell him two additional details she'd remembered from her assault: that the man's speech had been slurred, as though he were drunk, or spoke with a lisp, and also that he had a mole. Carrie had recalled these facts during her conversation with Linda. She was certain of them. Sergeant Bryant recorded the details in his notes and assured Carrie he would include them in his investigation.
At four that afternoon, his phone rang. It was Linda McDowell. She knew the man who had assaulted Carrie, Linda told Bryant, but she didn't want to say his name over the telephone. She also wanted to know if she would get a reward. Recently she had seen advertisements for a local program called Crime Stoppers, and she expected that, if she provided this man's name, she was entitled to a prize.
Sergeant Bryant invited Linda to the station. She was there twenty minutes later, at four thirty. Once Bryant had promised the Crime Stoppers reward, a thousand dollars, Linda revealed she knew a man who fit Carrie's description exactly. He went by either Willie Grimes or Willie Vinson. He also had a street name, Woot. He had a mole on his face—on the left side, Linda thought, though she wasn't certain. She had seen Willie on the Saturday of Carrie's rape, wearing a green shirt, in that same neighborhood, Little Berlin. She also knew his address.
At six fifteen that evening, Sergeant Bryant drove out to Claremont, twenty minutes east on I-40, where Carrie was staying with a sister-in-law. When Bryant arrived, Carrie told him she might have been wrong earlier that afternoon about the placement of her attacker's mole. It might have been on the left side of his face, not his right. In either case, it was near the corner of his mouth. She was positive. She just couldn't remember which corner. Bryant showed her a new lineup, different than the one she had seen two days earlier at the police station. In position number two, he had included a photograph of Willie Grimes. This photograph Bryant had discovered on file from a drunk-driving charge in May 1985—before now, one of Grimes's only two grazes with the law. (The other was also for driving under the influence, three years earlier, in 1982.) For fifteen seconds Carrie considered the new lineup. Then she pointed at Grimes. "This is the man," she said, and began crying. "This is the man who raped me."
Bryant asked if Carrie was certain. She was, Carrie confirmed, though in person Grimes's hair had been shorter. "I will never forget his face," she told Bryant. Then she added that Grimes had really hurt her and that, because of the way he had contorted her legs while on top of her, she was even having trouble walking. "What happened to me that night," she said, "was the worst nightmare I could imagine."
De Torres, listening to Sergeant Bryant's testimony—except for the fact of the Crime Stoppers reward, which Bryant had never been asked about, and never mentioned—realized he had forfeited a valuable argument. Because Carrie had floundered privately to recognize anyone in the photographic lineups, de Torres had succeeded in preventing their introduction to trial. But he knew that, in the lineup Sergeant Bryant had shown to Carrie in Claremont, Grimes was the only man with a mole. This was a problem. Given Carrie's gradual insistence on her assailant having had a facial mole, any lineup shown to her ought to have included several men who matched this description, or else naturally Carrie would choose the only man who did. It was important this detail be disclosed to the jury, de Torres knew, since it likely had factored into Carrie's identification of Grimes. De Torres, though, couldn't say anything about it. The district attorneys had already tried to introduce both lineups at trial, and de Torres had prevented it. Now by his own urging they were inadmissible.
Instead, jurors heard testimony by Officer Steve Hunt, a criminal investigator in his early thirties, already a thirteen-year veteran of the Hickory police. Hunt himself had grown up nearby in the projects, with eight siblings, a single mother, and his grandmother, who mostly looked after them, since his mother so often was out working one of two jobs. He still cried when he talked about that neighborhood. At five or six years old he had decided to become a police officer; just two years out of high school he'd started on patrol, one of the few black officers on the Hickory force. "I was in the projects," he would tell people, "but the projects were not in me." By 1987 he was an investigator.
Because Hunt was in the habit of switching on his radio while off duty, he heard the call about Carrie that Saturday even though he wasn't working. He decided to pass by Carrie's address.
At one o'clock Sunday morning, a few hours after the assault, Hunt steered down Center Street, perpendicular to Carrie's apartment. On the pavement he came upon an apple core. Remembering something from the radio about fruit having been taken from the scene, he doubled back to Carrie's apartment for a look around. On the grass just south of her doorstep he discovered two banana peels, ten or so feet apart. These he left untouched in the yard. The apple core he brought with him to the Hickory station, where, without examining it for fingerprints, he tossed it into the trash. To one or two of his colleagues he mentioned the banana peels he'd seen, but no one went back to retrieve them. The next day, Monday, October 26, when Carrie recognized a photograph in Sergeant Bryant's lineup, Steve Hunt was put in charge of the case.
The following day, Hunt visited Grimes's address, where he lived with a girlfriend.
Grimes wasn't home. That afternoon, though, Hunt tracked Grimes down and took him into custody. He fingerprinted Grimes and booked him. In the paperwork, Hunt marked that Grimes was six feet two inches tall, a hundred and sixty-five pounds. In the section for "Scars/Marks/Tattoos," he recorded that Grimes was missing two fingertips, from the middle and index fingers of his right hand. Especially noticeable was Grimes's middle finger, where the entire final joint was gone. Carrie had never mentioned either of these. Grimes had a mole, though, near the left side of his mouth. And he was wearing a green sweater. Hunt confiscated this sweater, along with the rest of Grimes's clothes, and replaced them with a gray jumpsuit for Grimes to wear in his cell.
De Torres, at trial, asked where Grimes's clothing had gone, because it would be valuable to test for evidence. As far as de Torres knew, this had never happened. "I have no idea," Hunt told him. That clothing had been turned over to the jailor, and no one had seen it again.
Because for nearly a decade Jack Holsclaw had served as Hickory's only evidence technician, his shifts were unusually civilian-like for a police officer: five days a week, from eight thirty to five. For the same reason, however, he remained on call at any hour. The Saturday of Carrie's assault, he had been phoned at home. When he arrived at Carrie's address, sometime after nine thirty, only Officer Blackburn was still there, everyone else having left already for the hospital or the station. By then someone had replaced the chain on Carrie's storm door.
Holsclaw's responsibility was to "process the crime scene," he explained to the court, which meant to gather any items he thought might prove relevant to the case as well as to take a series of photographs. From the kitchen table he collected two bananas and an apple, since Officer Blackburn had mentioned the attacker stealing fruit. From the bedroom he removed a pair of underwear. On the bedspread he found several hair samples; these he sealed inside a plastic bag. Holsclaw also examined the front door for fingerprints but couldn't find any. Back at the station, though, he lifted two prints from the bananas. A week later, Holsclaw was able to examine them, and to compare them with fingerprints from Willie Grimes, who by then had been arrested. The prints didn't match. Holsclaw and his colleagues guessed this meant the prints probably belonged to Carrie Elliott. Officers had never taken prints from her, though, so no one ever checked. Neither did Holsclaw think to compare the prints with those of any officer who had visited the scene. Even Steve Hunt, who had booked Grimes himself and then learned a week later of the fingerprints, never followed up to see if each set matched. It was news to him now, hearing Holsclaw testify, that the prints recovered from the scene didn't belong to Grimes.
- "Remarkable . . . A captivating, intimate profile of one man's stubbornly persistent efforts to convince others of his innocence . . . Rachlin is a skilled storyteller . . . With understatement and painstaking reporting, he fully succeeds in his rich, intimate portrait of Grimes."—Alex Kotlowitz, New York Times Book Review
- "A crisply written page turner . . . Rachlin painstakingly renders Grimes's life behind bars . . . Deploying the same precision with which he documents Grimes's prison life, Rachlin recounts the arduous and complex work to move the wheels of justice . . . Read Ghost of the Innocent Man to follow its twisted path . . . but don't read for the gripping story alone . . . The National Registry of Exonerations calculates that over 18,000 years have been lost by innocent people serving time . . . Shouldn't we be better than this?"—Martha Anne Toll, NPR
- "Intriguing . . . A gripping legal-thriller mystery . . . This is a story that profoundly elevates good-cause advocacy to greater heights-to where innocent lives are saved . . . This empathetic book tells the story of the beginnings of the movement to right a national crisis of wrongful convictions-and of one of its first victories . . . A fine piece of investigative journalism."—Don Oldenburg, USA Today
- "Rachlin vividly describes the anguish that would well up in Grimes again and again during his twenty-four years behind bars . . . In Rachlin's skilled hands, Grimes's story triggers indignation but also confers solace, Grimes [himself] being one of the solacing features."—Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post
- "Dramatic and eye-opening . . . A hopeful story . . . By showing us that the specter of wrongful convictions involves flesh-and-blood human beings, Ghost of the Innocent Man confronts us with the cruelest injustices of the criminal justice system, even as it also holds out hope for a more humane future."—San Francisco Chronicle
- "One of the most powerful aspects of Ghost of the Innocent Man is its portrait of time behind bars--the transfers, delays, and letter-writing campaigns that form the scaffolding of lives in limbo . . . A story so important and infuriating it is hard to look away."—Claudia Rowe, Seattle Times
- "Ghost of the Innocent Man is nothing less than a masterpiece of investigative reporting and virtuosic writing. It is a book that brilliantly substantiates society's elemental promise to its citizenry-that we not have our freedoms wrongly taken from us. Benjamin Rachlin's book is Greek drama brought into our own times. It will change readers' lives, I think, and inspire them. It's that good."—Richard Ford
"Ghost of the Innocent Man is deeply researched and, more importantly, deeply felt. For both reasons and many more, it is a profound meditation on the human condition and a vital contribution to the literature. The endurance and fortitude of Willie Grimes surpass those of any athlete or explorer. The passages in which Christine Mumma assembles lawmen and legislatures of all different creeds to help resolve an urgent national crisis should make us all consider these current times as not just toxic and tragic but filled with the possibility of hope and redemption. In the end, Benjamin Rachlin takes us through the justice system in all its immutability and shows us the light we can wield should we so choose."
—Jeff Hobbs, author of the New York Times bestseller The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
- "Enraging, instructive, and profoundly moving, Ghost of the Innocent Man is a gripping lesson in the terrible costs of our flawed criminal justice system and the power that individuals have to change its course. The story of how a gentle soul like Willie J. Grimes received an undeserved life sentence is heartbreaking-full of human cruelty and carelessness and worse. But in the care and exactitude of Benjamin Rachlin's telling, it is also an inspiring call for readily achievable reform. With judicious compassion, he narrates the errors, omissions, and societal forces that led to this wrongful conviction, setting it all squarely in the context of a persistent national disgrace, and reminding us of our responsibility to work toward true justice. The effect is remarkable and unforgettable."—Eli Sanders, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of While the City Slept
- "Ghost of the Innocent Man is an honest and critical look at our justice system. . . [and] a meticulously researched book. It is a must-read for every American who cares about justice."—The Washington Book Review
"An absorbing true-crime saga . . . Rachlin's debut combines a gripping legal drama with a penetrating exposé of the shoddy investigative and trial standards nationwide . . . His narrative offers a moving evocation of faith under duress."
—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
- "Grimes's story is both compelling and enraging, and his thoughtfulness and persistence propel the story as much as the determination and passion of the lawyers working to establish the Commission . . . A sobering account of both a wrongful conviction and the structural impediments to fixing miscarriages of justice, with a gut punch of a closing paragraph."—Kate Sheehan, Library Journal (starred review)
- "An absorbing story . . . In his moving first book, Rachlin, with confidence and care, relays both the terrifying personal costs and complex legalities, so dependent on fallible humans, of wrongful conviction and imprisonment."—Annie Bostrom, Booklist
- "In this compelling tale of crime and punishment (of the wrong person), Rachlin explores a horrible case of wrongful conviction and ultimate exoneration. Willie Grimes maintained his innocence in his 1988 trial, but was convicted on flimsy evidence and served over 20 years behind bars. By twinning Grimes' story with the establishment of North Carolina's Innocence Inquiry Commission, which was responsible for overturning the conviction, Rachlin enlarges the book's scope, making it not merely a chronicle of a serious miscarriage of justice, but a broader indictment of a flawed system, and the prison industrial complex, that made it possible."—The National Book Review
- "Ghost of the Innocent Man is plainspoken-frank, yes, but even more potently, unadorned--either when Grimes is speaking or Rachlin is writing . . . The story is clean and tight, emotionally and psychologically expressive and expressionistic, and easily visualized by the mind's eye . . . A fine debut effort."—Peter Lewis, Barnes & Noble Review
- On Sale
- Aug 15, 2017
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Little, Brown and Company