Regular readers know that I am against the death penalty. Not because of the inherent injustice in its application or because any human system is flawed and bound to make mistakes, but because I think it’s simply a power that the state should not have. That being said, one would think that would make me a receptive audience to a legal thriller based on the idea of the state of Texas executing an innocent man. I’ll admit that the heart is in the right place, but that still doesn’t make for a compelling piece of fiction.
Two deaths are at the heart of The Confession, John Grisham’s fictional treatment of an area he hit earlier in a non-fiction book, An Innocent Man. The first is the murder of a high school cheerleader named Nicole. The second is the execution, nine years later, of Donte Drumm, who, although convicted by a jury, is absolutely innocent of the crime. As a race-against-the-clock thriller, it has a lot of possibilities. Problem is that the clock runs out about two-thirds of the way through the book, leaving precious little of interest happening thereafter.
By that time, there is absolutely no doubt that Drumm was innocent. Grisham takes several of the more notorious bits of lunacy in death penalty practice over the years (many from Texas) and piles them up in one case. There’s the titular false confession, which is the result of hours upon hours of lies and pressure by cops. Then there’s the fact that the prosecutor and the judge presiding over the trial were sleeping together. Then, with the clock ticking down in the background, the last court that can do something to stop the execution shuts its doors promptly at closing time, even though Drumm’s lawyers have alerted them that they are on the way over with a last-minute filing. All of those things are ripped from the headlines, sadly. Putting them all together in one case, however, is just too much. Grisham doesn’t have a finger on the scales of justice, it’s more like a palm.
Political figures don’t fare much better than the legal ones. All during the book, we drop in on the governor of Texas and his two closest friends and advisors, his “communications director” (aka spin doctor) and chief counsel. The governor himself is a poll-driven political whore, but you’d expect that. What you might assume is the only reason Grisham gives him two advisors always in tow is that one of them might say something profound about what happens or offer some dissenting opinion. Alas, it’s all about politics with all of them. Nobody at all seems concerned that the state has killed an innocent man.
Here’s the thing. If you want to write a convincing fictional takedown of the death penalty, the structure Grisham uses here would work. Most wrongful convictions are a little more complex than this one, however, and you could use the period after the execution to unravel how it all went wrong. Grisham so tilts the playing field, however, that there’s nothing to unravel once the execution goes down. As a race against the clock it fails because, well, they kill the wrong guy. But as a thoughtful exposition of how such a thing could happen, it also fails.
Which is a real shame. Grisham is a big name author who could presumably reach some people who are not entrenched partisans when it comes to the death penalty. Maybe he will someday. He certainly won’t with The Confession.
The Confession, by John Grisham
First published in 2010