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A Quarter of a Century Behind Bars, for a Crime He Didn’t Commit

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A True Story of Trial and Redemption 
By Benjamin Rachlin 
Illustrated. 387 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $27.

On a fall evening in 1987, in the town of Hickory, N.C., 69-year-old Carrie Elliott, a recent widow, answered a knock at the door. It was a stranger who forced his way in and then raped her, twice. Elliott, who was all of five feet tall and 90 pounds, paid attention to the features of her assailant, and later picked a man named Willie Grimes out of a lineup, telling a police sergeant, “I will never forget his face.” Moreover, her neighbor told the police she knew who did it, someone who matched the victim’s description, and gave the police the name of Grimes. What Grimes and his attorney didn’t know is the neighbor received a $1,000 reward for that information. At the trial, six people confirmed Grimes’s alibi, testifying that they were with him the night of the crime. When asked to point out her rapist in court Elliott first pointed to his attorney. Nonetheless, Grimes was convicted and sentenced to natural life in prison.

In “Ghost of the Innocent Man,” Benjamin Rachlin has taken this far-too-commonplace story — far-too-commonplace because it happens so often — and spun out a captivating, intimate profile of one man’s stubbornly persistent efforts to convince others of his innocence. It took a quarter of a century. Alongside Grimes’s story, Rachlin also chronicles a young lawyer’s efforts to create one of the nation’s first state-sponsored agencies dedicated to looking at claims of innocence.

Rachlin is a skilled storyteller, but what’s not sufficiently clear is why he chose to tell this particular story. Over the past 28 years and as of this writing, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 2,102 people whom the courts or government officials have found to be wrongfully convicted. Some of these cases have been the subjects of newspaper series, books and documentary films, often because there’s something larger at stake than an individual’s guilt or innocence. After reading The Chicago Tribune’s series on questionable convictions in death penalty cases, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois was so shaken that days before his term ended he commuted the sentences of all 171 people on death row, converting their terms to life sentences. The documentary “The Central Park Five” traced the ultimate exoneration of five black and Latino teenagers who were convicted of beating and raping a white woman jogging in the park. Four of the boys had confessed to the crime, and the case came to be shaped by the undertow of race. (Donald Trump took out full-page newspaper ads in four New York City dailies calling for the return of the death penalty, and more recently has said he’s still convinced they were involved in the rape.) Or there’s the case of Ronald Cotton, which Rachlin briefly recounts. Cotton was convicted of raping two women, one of whom identified him from photos and then from a lineup. After 10 years in prison, DNA evidence cleared him — and pointed to the real rapist. Cotton ended up meeting his accuser, who asked for forgiveness. The two became friends, and ended up writing a book together, “Picking Cotton,” which speaks to the problems with eyewitness testimony.

The story of Willie Grimes unfolds at the same time that DNA testing is introduced as a tool in criminal cases, which, of course, changed so much. It’s what freed the teenagers who had falsely confessed to the rape in Central Park. But interestingly DNA played no role in Grimes’s case — though not for lack of trying. The police, inexplicably, destroyed most of the evidence after the trial. While race may have been a factor, it did not seem to be the singular factor. Both Grimes and the actual rapist were African-American, as was the lead detective. Nor was Grimes’s conviction a result of ineffective or derelict counsel. In fact, his defense attorney fully believed in his innocence, so much so that he didn’t think the case would even make it to trial. Grimes’s conviction, in the end, appears to have been the result of sloppy and lazy police work, and as a reader I’m not sure what to take away from this. Rachlin works hard at trying to place Grimes’s predicament in context, dedicating nearly half the book to chronicling the efforts to form the state’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, a body created by the state legislature that considers post-conviction claims of innocence. But Grimes’s case, unlike Ronald Cotton’s, didn’t appear to play a big role, if any, in the commission’s formation — though it was the commission that ultimately freed him.

Where Rachlin fully succeeds is in his rich, intimate portrait of Grimes, who is isolated and alone, whose soul is cracking. With understatement and painstaking reporting, Rachlin introduces us to Grimes, and the slow piling of one humility on top of another. He attempts to address the very human questions that most of us have: When serving time for a crime you didn’t commit, how do you not become consumed by anger and bitterness? How do you maintain your equilibrium? As Rachlin recounts Grimes’s incarceration over the years and decades, we witness the slow-motion crushing of his spirit. Grimes loses two brothers and a girlfriend to illness. He suffers from insomnia and depression along with physical ailments undoubtedly related to his stress. He is diagnosed with prostate cancer. He is transferred from prison to prison so many times I lost count. At one point, Rachlin writes, “When he shuddered awake at 2 in the morning he was aglow, he was seething. His every filament vibrated hideously. … He sensed he might be corroding internally, like a battery.”

Yet somehow Grimes persists. He repeatedly writes his attorney, who believes in his innocence but doesnÂ’t think thereÂ’s anything he can do to prove it, and he writes other attorneys, including one who takes a $4,200 payment from a relative and then stops taking their calls. Sometimes Grimes has to wait months for a reply, and usually itÂ’s to say thereÂ’s nothing to be done. Grimes combs law books and leans on fellow inmates to help him with letters pleading his case. He finds succor in religion, in JehovahÂ’s Witnesses, a church through which he meets members who visit him regularly and come to believe his story. At various points along the way, prison officials suggest to Grimes that if he wants to become eligible for parole he needs to enlist in a course for sex offenders. He refuses because it would require that he sign a form expressing remorse for the rape he didnÂ’t commit. ItÂ’s his single act of defiance. He is, after all, not a sex offender.

ItÂ’s this part of the book that will most stay with you, a soft-spoken, gentle man who tries, as best he can, to hold on to who he is. Grimes was 41 when he went to prison. His only previous arrests were for driving under the influence. Amazingly, he came out as dignified a man as when he went in. ItÂ’s in these chapters that this story becomes remarkable. That, I suppose, is reason enough to tell this tale.


Willie Grimes at the Caledonia Correctional Institution in Tillery, N.C., in 2007.CreditR.J. Sangosti/The Denver Post, via Getty Images



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