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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Author John Grisham talks about advocacy for the innocent at annual lecture

Writer John Grisham, left, gave the keynote speech at the annual Eve Carson Lecture on Feb. 28. After the lecture, Daniel Wallace, a writer and distinguished professor of creative writing, joined Grisham onstage for an interview.

During his 10 years as a criminal lawyer in a small town in Mississippi, John Grisham never had a client that he considered to be wrongfully convicted. The system, as he saw it, was fair and reasonable.

Then years later he stumbled across a New York Times obituary for Ronald Williamson and realized the legal system needed to change.

“[Williamson] was standing in the courtroom in a big photo — black and white — looking confused in a bad suit and tie, white hair, 50 years old, and the headline said, ‘Ron Williamson, freed from death row, dies at the age of 51,’” he said. “I was stunned. How did this guy end up on death row when he was innocent?”

That question led Grisham to write his first nonfiction book, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town” (later turned into a Netflix series), and to advocate for the wrongly convicted.

The best-selling author and advocate was the keynote speaker at the annual Eve Carson Lecture on Feb. 28. After the talk, Daniel Wallace, the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor and director of creative writing in the College of Arts & Sciences, interviewed Grisham onstage.

Co-sponsored by the Carolina Women’s Leadership Council and Student Government’s Carolina Roundtable committee, the lecture at Hill Hall was part of the Eve Carson Lecture Series. The series honors the memory of the late student body president who first established the program as the “Distinguished Speakers Series” in 2007.

Grisham is best known for his legal thrillers — nine of which have become films. More than 300 million Grisham books are in print worldwide.

Grisham is a vocal advocate for the Innocence Project, which works to free innocent people convicted of crimes. He is currently on the organization’s board of directors.

“We had 350 exonerations, which is only scratching the surface because there are thousands of innocent people in prison, and we’re working, one at a time, slowly, to get them out,” he said. “It’s very easy to send an innocent person to prison. It’s almost impossible to get one out.”