Document Type

Article

Publication Date

Summer 2011

Department

Psychology

Abstract

Imagine a man, suffering from alcoholism and schizophrenia, drifting through his small town, known mostly for getting thrown out of bars. When a graphic murder occurs, this man’s name gets linked to the victim, and police focus on him as a suspect. Although there is no evidence against him, a combination of poor police work and a town’s desire for closure lead to this innocent man being convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. Down to his last appeal, after spending 12 years on death row, a fair and honest judge is finally convinced to take a closer look at this man’s case, and he is eventually freed. These are the true events that happened to Ron Williamson, sent to death row for a murder he didn’t commit, and his story is told in John Grisham’s only non-fiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. I chose to use this book as assigned reading in my Psychology and the Law course to introduce students to topics related to our legal system through the lens of a true case of a man wrongly convicted. The course is a lower-level psychology course, designed for students interested in learning more about forensic psychology and other topics related to psychology and the legal system. The students in the course were mostly sophomore, junior and senior psychology majors. Several law enforcement majors and corrections majors were also enrolled. In the course, we covered areas including forensic psychology and determining competence, interrogations and false confessions, lie detection and polygraphs, eyewitness memory, racism in the courtroom, jury decision-making, and the death penalty. The book The Innocent Man was a natural fit with the course; it raises issues of determining competency and how our legal system deals with people with mental health problems. The book also explores false confessions, flawed eyewitness testimony, jail snitches, police and prosecutors under pressure, courtroom trials and jury decisions, death penalty sentencing, and the appeals process. I wanted students to be able to learn more about the process of investigation, trials, and appeals, while also seeing the effect that mistakes can have on the human beings involved. Although students also read assigned textbook chapters, I hoped that The Innocent Man would reinforce these concepts while engaging the students with this real-life story.

Publication Title

American Psychology-Law Society Newsletter

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License

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