Concord High School grad debuts first book, telling story of rape exoneree

  • Concord High School graduate Benjamin Rachlin publishes his first book, “Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption.” KEVIN SWEENEY—Courtesy

  • Concord High School graduate Benjamin Rachlin publishes his first book, “Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption.” —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

When writer Benjamin Rachlin requested an interview in 2013 with Willie Grimes – a man who spent 24 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit – he did so with the intent of publishing a magazine article.

Four years later, Rachlin, a 2004 graduate of Concord High School, is launching his first-ever book, Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption, about Grimes and his long road to freedom.

Rachlin was a master’s student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington when he first read about Grimes and North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, the state agency whose investigative work has led to 10 exonerations in the past decade. Grimes was among the 10 and freed in 2012.

Grimes had been wrongfully convicted in the 1987 rape of an older woman in North Carolina, and he was sentenced to life. He spent 24 years in prison despite having never committed a violent crime.

Twenty-four years. That detail was one Rachlin couldn’t shake from his mind. His brother Luke was 24 years old at the time, meaning Grimes had spent someone’s lifetime in prison.

“The fact that I could map his entire incarceration on the life of my brother struck me with a certain amount of force,” said Rachlin, who now lives in the Boston area.

Rachlin’s journey began with a vision for his master’s thesis in creative writing, but quickly evolved into much more. Within the next couple of years, he immersed himself in thousands of pages of court records and eagerly crisscrossed the state of North Carolina for in-person interviews with the key players in Grimes’s story.

Exonerations had periodically made the news, but Rachlin said he was always dissatisfied with the final product. He knew his approach had to be different. Those wronged by the criminal justice system deserved more.

“It seemed crazy to me that a human experience this incredible would not have been written about in a more substantive and in an more intimate way,” he said.

Rachlin hoped to break the mold, but, admittedly, he had never tackled something of this magnitude before.

He began by educating himself and by making cold calls to anyone he thought could help. That included to Grimes’s attorney, Christine Mumma, who co-founded the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. It was Mumma who put Rachlin in touch with Grimes for the first time.

Rachlin had a brief phone conversation with Grimes, and then drove five hours so they could meet face-to-face. He didn’t know if the conversation would lead anywhere. Grimes had previously declined interviews with other writers.

“I was very nervous until I realized the thing I was nervous about was the prospect of him saying ‘no.’ Then, I just decided to allow for that possibility. Given what Willie had been through, it was more important for me to be respectful of him than to advance my own career,” Rachlin said in retrospect. “I thought, don’t strategize, don’t trick, don’t try to convince him; just be honest, be yourself, express how you feel and let him choose.”

During that first meeting, Grimes told Rachlin a bit about his life and his experiences in the criminal justice system, and, in return, Rachlin discussed his interests and background. Rachlin said he was sincere with Grimes from the outset – an approach that may have weighed in his favor.

“I asked if he was okay with me returning every so often and me writing about his experience, and he said ‘yes.’ ” Rachlin recalled. “Then, it was off to the races.”

From the start, Grimes’s motive was clear: He wanted to prevent what had happened to him from happening to someone else.

“He felt if no one knew about his story, they were likely to repeat it,” Rachlin said. “Even though he was personally uncomfortable being in the spotlight, he did want the story about him to be known.”

Researchers for the National Registry of Exonerations have documented 2,083 wrongful convictions in the United States since 1989, the year DNA testing had come into use. That includes at least one exoneration in each state, and 18,060 total years served in prison.

In his book, Rachlin has changed no names or dates, and all the dialogue is drawn directly from the record or from his own interviews. He had made a deal with readers to tell the truth, and a similar promise to Grimes to get the narrative right.

“I think it was especially important in a story like this one where deception and inaccuracy are part of the subject matter,” Rachlin said.

While it would have been easy for Ghost of the Innocent Man to read like a textbook, Rachlin said, he wrote with the intent of providing readers with an “intimate, textured and scenic” story, hoping it would grip them like a work of fiction.

When Rachlin discussed his work by phone this week, he said he believed Grimes was still working through an advanced copy. When done with the first chapter, Grimes had previously told Rachlin, “It’s like I’m at trial all over again.”

Rachlin will be at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord on Sept. 7 at 5:30 p.m.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)