Had I known how emotional I would get at the end of listening to Ghost of an Innocent Man by Benjamin Rachlin, I probably would have waited until I was at home to play it.
Instead, I was zooming along a major highway through Pennsylvania at 70-plus miles per hour with tears streaming down my face.
Tears of relief, happiness, sadness, and release of tension.
I knew from the beginning how the true story of Willie Grimes and the 25 years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit would end, but Mr. Rachlin’s book, which came out late this year, still kept me in suspense for many an evening while eating dinner. I can’t number the heavy sighs that came out of me at each twist of the botched investigation, the refusal of the Catawba County officials to do more, and the heartbreaking years during which Mr. Grimes was shuttled from prison to prison, all the while protesting his innocence and searching for someone who would listen to him.
It wasn’t until the creation of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, spearheaded by young lawyer Christine Mumma, that someone did.
Carrie Elliott, a woman in her late 60s, was raped in 1987 In her own home. One evening a knock came at her door, and she opened it to find an African-American man who forced his way in and proceeded to rape her repeatedly.
Willie Grimes was miles away with his girlfriend, Brenda, doing a personal errand and then attending a party. Mr. Grimes slept that night on a sofa at a friend’s house. A couple of days later, he was told that the police were looking for him, so he went to the police station to find out why. He was not free again until 2007.
Mrs. Elliott was shown two different sets of pictures of possible assailants. In one was the picture of the man who had raped her, Albert Turner. In the second, Mr. Turner’s picture was not included but Willie Grimes’s was. Influenced by a neighbor, who said that the assailant sounded like Mr. Grimes and gave her a description of Mr. Grimes, Mrs. Elliott then picked Willie’s picture.
The neighbor also went directly to the police and received a $1,000 reward for naming Mr. Grimes.
The two men looked nothing alike. And though Mrs. Elliott had not mentioned a man with a mole on his cheek or scars on his chest (Willie) right after the rape, the police thought they had an open and shut conviction. That, along with a pseudo-science report that a hair found in Mrs. Elliott’s house was identical to Mr. Grimes’s hair, the police in fact did have an open and shut case.
The police also ignored a banana that the rapist had eaten part of and tossed aside, which would prove to have fingerprints that would have identified Mr. Turner, the actual rapist.
And Willie Grimes, in his early 40s, was sentenced to life imprisonment.
His girlfriend died while he was in prison. Carrie Elliott died while he was in prison. Three brothers died while he was in prison. He was repeatedly denied privileges because of his refusal to “accept responsibility for his crime.”
I came to love Willie Grimes during the course of the book, for his perseverance, for his anger, for his joy when freed, for everything he endured.
We know that he is just one of many, many people wrongfully imprisoned whose fate is in the hands of organizations such as the Innocence Project, Equal Justice Initiative, and the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.
Knowing just one person’s story leads to an understanding of others’ stories and the hopes and prayers that they too will find the exoneration they seek and deserve. We can help by supporting such organizations as well as calling for reform in the American justice system. Just one day in prison for an innocent person is one day too much.
You can hear an NPR interview with Mr. Rachlin and Mr. Grimes here: https://www.npr.org/2017/08/27/546497386/-ghost-of-the-innocent-man-a-story-of-24-years-of-wrongful-imprisonment