Ready yourself for emotional whiplash as Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption, Benjamin Rachlin’s account of a man wrongly convicted of rape, seesaws from scenes of judicial haste, incompetence and indifference to episodes of sublime compassion and legal professionalism. In 1987 near Hickory, North Carolina, a 69-year-old, white widow answered a knock at her door. A black man she didn’t recognize rushed in and raped her twice before leisurely helping himself to some fruit from her kitchen and walking away. Through police negligence and mishandling of evidence, 41-year-old Willie Grimes was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life plus nine years. Although the victim identified Grimes as her attacker, her identification was contradictory, and there were no physical markers linking him to the crime.
But just when the reader is prepared to write off North Carolina as a legal snake pit, Rachlin shifts his narrative to a group of lawyers, law professors, judges and prosecutors who, on their own time, form a committee aimed at making trials fairer and freeing the innocent. They are led by Christine Mumma, who put herself through law school and has the instincts and resourcefulness of a street fighter. Together they create the Innocence Inquiry Commission, which is eventually recognized and funded by the state.
Grimes remained in various state prisons for 24 years, refusing to confess to the crime even though doing so would have led to his early release. Rachlin recounts in heartbreaking detail the physical and psychological agonies Grimes suffered before finding a measure of relief in becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. Finally, with Mumma acting as his attorney, Grimes was exonerated of all charges. Rachlin fits the North Carolina reforms into the national thrust to free the wrongly convicted, especially with the advent of DNA testing.