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Grisham shines spotlight on tragic truth of US death row's innocents


The Guardians by John Grisham is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20
The Guardians by John Grisham is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20

By Myles McWeeney

Currently, there are 1,600 plus death-row inmates in prisons across America. It has been estimated that 4% are innocent, and since 1973, at least 340 of the wrongfully convicted have been executed. At the start of The Guardians, John Grisham's latest legal thriller, Duke Russell, is eating his last meal on Alabama's death row.

Although he's not guilty, he's been fast-tracked for lethal injection. He's been on death row for only nine years, yet the average in Alabama is 15 and 20 is not unusual. With him during his last hours is Cullen Post, a lawyer who, for the last four years, has fought to prove Duke's innocence.

Cullen's painstaking investigations have convinced him that the case against Duke was fatally flawed. Now all he can do is pray that an appeal court judge will agree and issue a last-minute reprieve. Cullen needs to move on - he has five more cases just like this, the most urgent of which is that of Quincy Miller, a black man found guilty of the murder of a white lawyer, Keith Russo, in Seabrook, a small Florida town.

Cullen was once a hard-working public defender. A work-related mental breakdown led him to quit law and retrain as an Episcopalian pastor.

He now works for a pittance for a small innocence project group called Guardian Ministries that is dedicated to freeing the wrongly convicted.

He now drives tens of thousands of miles every year trying to persuade reluctant prosecutors, judges and courts to reopen capital cases.

His territory is vast, the so-called Death Belt that stretches from North Carolina to Texas by way of Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida, all states that enthusiastically embraced the 1976 US Supreme Court's decision to reinstate the death penalty. In the last 10 years, he has exonerated 10 men and he is determined Quincy is going to be the next to walk free.

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But Cullen finds that Quincy's case is not as open and shut as his investigations have suggested.

He's found a prosecutor who lied, a sheriff who 'lost' crucial evidence, flawed expert testimony and unreliable eye witnesses.

It emerges that powerful and ruthless people have been behind Russo's brutal murder, and they are prepared to do anything, including murder, to make sure Quincy's original trial is not reopened.

John Grisham's 33rd legal thriller is delivered with all his signature easy, flowing style. A past master at the art of deft characterisation and the skilful delivery of hair-raising crescendos, Grisham makes this a deceptively easy read.

But The Guardians is much more than a simple legal divertissement. From early on it is quite clear that the story has been drawn from tragic real-life scenarios.

Grisham aims a spotlight at the all-too-prevalent venality of the American 'win at all costs' prosecutorial attitude, and he suggests there is a feeling among many US prosecutors and conservative holders of judicial offices that if someone has been charged with a crime, they are automatically guilty.

Independent research suggests that up to 10% of convictions in US courts are wrongful. Given that incarceration is big business, this is a truly frightening figure.

Currently America has more 2.3 million convicted criminals, costing the US taxpayer $80bn a year to keep them behind bars.

In an afterword to The Guardians, Grisham, an outspoken supporter of innocence projects who sits on the board of one of the original bodies, Centurion Ministries (founded in 1980 and successful in having 63 innocent men and women walk free), makes it clear that much of his inspiration is based on tragic fact.

The Guardians by John Grisham is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20

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