John Grisham: ‘There are tens of thousands of innocent people in prison and you don’t believe it because you’re white’

The author and lawyer said during a speech at the Santa Fe Literary Festival that ‘white people love the death penalty’ but ‘Black people know the truth’ about criminal justice in the US

Holly Baxter
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Sunday 22 May 2022 03:28 BST
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John Grisham spoke unequivocally about criminal justice and America’s racial divide during the first full day of the Santa Fe Literary Festival, saying that “white people love the death penalty”.

“There are tens of thousands of innocent people in prison and you don’t believe it because you’re white,” the prolific author and lawyer said to the audience while in conversation with friend and bestselling writer Hampton Sides.

“Black people know the truth,” he added, to applause. “It’s pretty easy to send an innocent person to prison. It’s almost impossible to get them out.”

Grisham described visiting death row for book research, where he found there was a room set aside for condemned inmates to sit with a chaplain during the hour before their execution.

“I’m sitting with this chaplain, it’s quiet, spooky, there’s no execution looming,” Grisham said, “...and he said, ‘Can I ask you a question? Are you a Christian?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Do you think Jesus would approve of what we do here?’ And I couldn’t say yes.”

Grisham added that he hadn’t been vehemently against the death penalty before that moment. The chaplain “said, ‘We all agree that killing’s wrong, so why should the state be able to kill?’ That moment I switched [my opinion] and never looked back.”

The author met families of victims who had been killed by inmates on death row. “I don’t know how they do it, but they find a way to forgive,” he said. “And when they do that, they can start to put it behind them. And the ones who are bitter or vengeful or want blood, they never do.”

Grisham also spoke about his involvement with the criminal justice nonprofit for the wrongfully accused, The Innocence Project, adding that 275 people had been exonerated because of the charity’s work.

Asked whether he had begun writing his next book, Grisham described growing up in the shadow of the Vietnam War and said that “there’s one book I want to write about Vietnam”. During his childhood, he had “conflicts with [his] father” about the war, and “as I grew older, I met people who went, and met families whose sons didn’t come home, and I just wonder: How could this happen to this country?”

The multi-genre writer said that although he isn’t yet working on a Vietnam-oriented manuscript, he is “thinking about that”.

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