Book excerpt: ‘Ghost of the Innocent Man’

  • Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

  • Benjamin Rachlin Juliette Kenny photo

Thursday, August 24, 2017

(The following is an excerpt from Ghost of the Innocent Man by Benjamin Rachlin, a 2004 graduate of Concord High School. Ghost is the story of Willie J. Grimes – a “gentle spirit” who spent 24 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of first-degree rape in North Carolina – and the legal team that fought for his freedom. Rachlin will appear at Gibson’s Bookstore on Sept. 7 at 5:30 p.m.)

To serve a long term in prison was to stay at a permanent, insulated distance from all that had comprised the first forty-one years of his life. His friends and siblings, the fence posts and grassy acreage of Lawndale, his jobs at the textile plant and furniture shop, even his old apartment and clothes. Every one of them was gone. Week after week, his memories strained an inch further – their colors bleached a shade paler, their voices calling a decibel softer – until he had worn them nearly threadbare. In the other direction expanded one long, sluggish afternoon into another, lined as far as he could see.

An inmate in this position controlled whatever he could. He turned the knob of his shower at precisely the same minute each morning, stored his toothbrush on precisely the same square inch of shelf in his locker. On the yard he lifted a particular weight a particular number of times. In the mess hall he ate precisely the same foods, or else deliberately did the reverse, never repeated a meal on consecutive days, simply to show that he could. He stuffed crumbs into his pockets and snuck them into his cell, to draw out mice, which he kept as pets. He collected books or photographs or letters or radios, and he protected his collections, sometimes ferociously. If he worked in a sewing plant he tailored his own clothes, or stitched them with his initials, out of view of the guards. Now he no longer borrowed those clothes; now those clothes belonged to him.

Or an inmate serving a long term might disengage entirely, might flee, as far as he could, his own senses. He might regiment his day, his month, his year, his decade, so as to automate them. He might rise at a certain time, engage in certain physical actions, and rest at a certain time, as an engine idling at low speed. He ignored Christmas and Passover and his birthday and the New Year, same as the old year, all holidays that no longer existed. An inmate like this never got his hopes up and thus never felt disappointed. He took naps. If he was lucky he realized it was four in the afternoon and the morning had already passed. He’d barely noticed.

Or an inmate might make the best of his time. He might be gregarious. He might play cards and checkers and dominoes; if he had money, he might gamble. He might run errands for guards, to curry favors, or join a gang.

Or an inmate might pursue his education, spend his hours at the library or in classes. He might read thrillers or mysteries or literature or philosophy. He might read the Bible. If he was optimistic, or enterprising, he might read law.

Three suffocating years Willie had spent mired in anger so liquid and churning it had nearly choked him. Now, in moments of calm, he began to recognize certain facts. Obviously it did not matter that he had committed no crime. This was irrelevant. As soon as police had arrested him, nothing he said about his own innocence counted. That was the reason they’d denied his appeals, and it meant they might not ever release him. He’d believed all this amounted to one long delay, but now he saw this might not be true. Possibly their convicting him had been no procedural error, to be corrected later, but an actual outcome. Possibly his imprisonment would be no exception to his life but its defining condition.

The thought devastated him. And it meant he’d trusted wrongly in the Hickory police, the Newton judge, the guards he saw making their rounds. These were not people who, in the long run, got things right. These were not professionals. There was no such thing as professionals. These smartly uniformed guards, with their desks and nameplates and badges, their rifled towers, their Gray Goose buses acted not out of power but out of fantasy. They reeked of falseness.

For every rule they’d invented, he saw an inmate who flouted it; to every law in North Carolina, there had to be an exception, as he himself was. Any guard, like any judge or any lawyer in any courtroom, was worthless. What power they imagined they held amounted to nothing at all. That so-called power was uncivilized and conditional. It was puny; it was hollow; it was an illusion. He had been foolish not to realize this. It made no difference for a prison to be built of brick or concrete or razor wire because in fact it was built of smoke.

(Ghost of the Innocent Man by Benjamin Rachlin was published on Aug. 15 by Little, Brown and Company.)