'Ghost Of The Innocent Man': A Story Of 24 Years Of Wrongful Imprisonment

Aug 27, 2017
Originally published on August 27, 2017 3:15 pm
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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A new book called "Ghost Of The Innocent Man: A True Story Of Trial And Redemption" is exactly as advertised. It's a true story of Willie Grimes, a North Carolina man who, despite thin evidence against him, spent nearly a quarter of a century in prison for a rape he did not commit. Willie Grimes joined me in studio this past week with author Benjamin Rachlin, who summed up the case this way.

BENJAMIN RACHLIN: Willie was accused and ultimately convicted of a sexual assault in October of 1987 against an elderly white woman in this small town called Hickory, N.C. At the time, Willie was at a house party with a number of friends across town, every one of whose attendees later testified on behalf of his alibi. There were a series of missteps and accidents that led to his conviction. Willie's name was tossed into the ring by a neighbor of the victim. And then the victim herself believe she recognized Willie in a lineup.

MARTINEZ: And Mr. Grimes, you said from the very beginning that you were innocent. How did you manage to stay hopeful that eventually something positive would happen for you?

WILLIE GRIMES: Well, I went to bury myself into books, law books and then became a Jehovah's Witness, put all my faith into Jehovah. But I never could give up because I knew I was innocent.

MARTINEZ: Now, you could have gotten closer to parole. All you had to do, Mr. Grimes, was to admit your guilt, admit responsibility in a crime that you didn't commit. Why did you not want to do that? I mean, after five, six, 10 years, why wouldn't you just say, look, OK - fine; let's make life easier for me?

GRIMES: Well, I was brought up to not to lie. And I knew that Jehovah didn't like anyone that tell lies and things. And I would have rather die before I would lie just to get out of prison because that still would have been on my name the rest of my life.

MARTINEZ: Benjamin Rachlin, while this was going on to Willie Grimes, what was happening in the state of North Carolina when it came to looking at possible wrongful convictions in the state?

RACHLIN: Yeah. Let me answer that by describing the surprise that Willie is describing, which is that innocence is not an appealable issue in the American criminal justice system. There's no such thing as an appeal that you file that says, the jury got it wrong. In fact, I'm innocent. If your trial followed the rules, it went as designed and the outcome was simply wrong, you're out of luck. And that's the situation that Willie found himself in.

So while Willie was in prison, there was a extraordinary collection of people in the criminal justice system scattered around North Carolina geographically, who came together for a kind of summit. And they got in a room, and they looked at each other. And they said, we've got a problem. We're convicting the wrong people.

By that point, DNA, which had been first used to prove someone's innocence in America in 1989, had come into wider use. And so there was no longer denying that the criminal justice system sometimes gets it wrong. And the outcome of those discussions became this one-of-a-kind state agency called the Innocence Inquiry Commission, a neutral fact-finding agency in North Carolina designed to handle cases like Willie's that can be addressed no other way.

MARTINEZ: And how did that happen for Willie Grimes? How did it eventually get to the point where he was found innocent?

RACHLIN: Willie's case was referred along sort of from one attorney to another until it landed on the desk of this woman named Christine Mumma. She helped his case land on the desks of the folks at the Innocence Inquiry Commission. And they conducted the sort of investigation that no one else was empowered to do.

They opened a file on Willie's case in 2010. And these folks pored through records and transcripts, also reinterviewed and researched everyone and every place they could find who had worked on this case back in 1987, '88 and in the years since. And they were able to find the evidence that no one else was able to find. In fact, Willie had been told that the evidence in his case had been destroyed and would never be found again. And the Innocence Inquiry Commission was able to prove that wasn't true.

MARTINEZ: Mr. Grimes, when you heard that you were going to be free - that after 24 years of hitting wall after wall, when you finally were able to be out and about - I mean, what was the first thing you did?

GRIMES: Oh, I went and found a place that sold chitlins and bought me a big plate of chitlins and carried them home and ate home. When the judge said, you is free at last, you is free at last, it was just a big cloud fell over me like. I just looked up in the spot and water went to coming out of my eyes. But I had to cry to hold myself together.

MARTINEZ: Benjamin Rachlin, throughout the whole book, I kept thinking about how, you know, us as human beings, you know, we sometimes aren't as thorough as we need to do with our jobs. Sometimes we take the easy way out. Sometimes we let biases influence us. And then, if our work is questioned, we bristle at it.

And that could be fine for certain professions. But when it comes to the criminal justice system, where we're talking about people's lives and, in this case, Willie Grimes' 24 years of freedom taken away from him, what was your biggest takeaway as you were putting this thing together?

RACHLIN: If you're an emergency room physician, if you're a judge, if you're a lawyer and people's freedom literally hangs in the balance, then a mistake on your end can have catastrophic consequences, not simply for the wrongly convicted but for their entire families, for the family of the victim or the victim themselves, who, if they're getting closure at all, it's a false closure that later might be unraveled. And for the - potentially future victims - you know, while Willie was wrongly incarcerated, the actual perpetrator in his case was on the streets conducting more assaults.

No one knows exactly how many people are wrongly convicted in America. There are people who study this. And their best estimate is about 4 or 5 percent, which, you know, for human endeavor, doesn't sound so bad. The problem is this. In North Carolina just last year, like, fiscal year 2006, there were a little under 30,000 felony convictions, about 28,500. Four percent of that is 1,200 people, more than a thousand people a year, in one state, like Willie.

MARTINEZ: Mr. Grimes, if I was in your shoes, I would hold a grudge toward the American criminal justice system for the rest of my days. Where are you?

GRIMES: On my behalf, I cannot be angry because I got my faith from Jehovah. And all humans going to make mistakes, regardless of the situation. But the problem is they don't want to go back and fix they mistake. Only thing I can say, I don't hold no grudge, but I just don't be around the people that could make me angry that way. And I just try to keep my heart and mind in Jehovah's hand.

MARTINEZ: Willie Grimes, the subject of "Ghost Of The Innocent Man: A True Story Of Trial And Redemption." Benjamin Rachlin is the author. Thank you both.

RACHLIN: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

GRIMES: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.