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Book Review: Ghost of the Innocent Man

The Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin, is about a man that is wrongly accused and convicted of a horrific rape occurring in 1987. He did not match the physical description of the assailant, there was no physical evidence to support the accusation and he was never interviewed by law enforcement.

Willie J. Grimes, a man with no prior criminal record, came into the station voluntarily, hearing news that police were looking for him. It was there he was arrested, without being told what he was being charged with. Grimes was later sentenced to life.

This book follows Grimes through his many long years in prison and his experiences there, while also weaving in his memories of life before the nightmare began. In alternating chapters is the story of how the first innocence inquiry in the nation was born, in North Carolina.

Despite the grim importance of having an innocent inquiry organization, and what it might mean for the innocent man we begin to learn more about, it was inspiring to see the hard work, activism, commitment and perseverance of the people involved in the creation of the North Caroline Center of Actual Innocence. They first had the difficult task of bringing together professionals of different backgrounds who were involved in the justice system, including sheriffs, judges, criminal defense lawyers and prosecutors. They named this body the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. But in order for progress to be made, the organizers had to continuously promote the productivity of the Commission, which they did. And it finally lead to change.

The creation of this commission and the work it did shows that collaboration, understanding and unity for the sake of one cause is possible, despite differences in viewpoints, and political and work-related allegiances. The Commission agreed on one central idea: no innocent should be in prison. If there were wrongfully convicted people in prison, there should be a path they can take to become free. There was a system to declare guilty or not guilty, but none to declare innocence.

And so the innocence inquiry organization, the North Carolina Center of Actual Innocence, was formed, and Grimes’ case eventually came to their attention. It was first a bleak prospect. Looking at the case details, it was obvious there was a miscarriage of justice. But how to prove it, was another matter.

Each page, each chapter, readers are on the edge, waiting to see what will become of Grimes. Once you start this book, it cannot be put down. It tells not just of Grimes’ story, but a story of our worst fears, to have our life taken away from us while we are still living.

There are more people like Grimes who were torn away from everything they held dear. The National Registry of Exonerations, a project that complies detailed data on exonerations in the United States, releases a report each year of how many people were cleared of crimes they were accused of but did not commit. In 2017, 139 were exonerated, in 2016, 166 and in 2015, 159. There have been 2,298 exonerations since 1989. Common contributing factors to their needless imprisonment include mistaken identity, false confessions, bad forensic evidence, perjury/false accusation, and official misconduct. Texas, of all the states including California, has the highest number of exonerations, a total of 61 people.

These numbers are just from those who could obtain enough evidence to become free. How many more innocents are still behind bars? It is impossible to tell.

Through the journey of one man and one organization, Ghost of the Innocent Man eloquently shows us the importance of having a practical, lawful way to be found innocent, and not guilty.

Afterall, justice must be served, must it not.


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