Denver Bar Association
March 2012
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Book Review: ‘The Confession’ Offers a Look at Capitol Crimes and Death Row Politics

by Marshall Snider

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"Confessions," by John Grisham
ohn Grisham is well known for his novels about lawyers and the law. The subject matter of many of his offerings, however, has little to do with the day-to-day lives of the lawyers we know.

When was the last time a law firm associate you knew was hunted down by the mob? Or that your client committed a revenge killing after his daughter was brutally raped and tortured? And have you ever run into the problem with one of your cases that a U.S. Supreme Court justice was murdered so that your opponent could obtain a replacement justice more favorable to his cause when the case came before the court? I didn’t think so.

"The Confession" comes a little closer to what lawyers really do, even if only a handful of lawyers. In this novel, Grisham explores controversial issues surrounding the death penalty. Donté Drumm was a black high school football star in the small town of Sloan, Texas (a story about the death penalty had to be based in Texas, didn’t it). Drumm is convicted of the rape and murder of Nicole Yarber, a white high school friend of his and a cheerleader at Sloan High School. The fact that her body was never found may be a pesky detail in some states, but in Texas the absence of a corpse provided no impediment to Drumm’s conviction and death sentence.

The lack of a body was only one problem for the prosecution. There also was no physical evidence linking the teen to the crime. But this is Texas, where lack of evidence is not going to stand in the way of providing a lethal injection to a young black man accused of killing a white woman. The prosecution’s case was based on two pieces of evidence. First, Drumm gave a videotaped confession. This confession was obtained after hours of physically and psychologically abusive interrogation, in which Drumm was denied access to his parents or a lawyer. Before the taping, the police thoughtfully provided details of the crime to Drumm that he otherwise would have gotten wrong.

“The Confession” by John Grisham

432 pages
Published by Doubleday.
Available in hard cover ($28.95)
and paperback ($9.99).

The state also had the eye-witness testimony of Joey Gamble, another Sloan High student, who placed Drumm at the location where Yarber was last seen. For reasons of his own, Gamble lied about having seen Drumm and Yarber that night. And it didn’t hurt the government’s case that the trial judge and prosecutor were involved in a then-unknown adulterous affair at the time of the trial, a fact that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found "unfortunate," and "possibly" giving the appearance of impropriety, but not such that Drumm was deprived of a fair trial. Other trial irregularities were equally laughable.

After nine years on death row, and despite numerous appeals and the support of anti-death penalty groups, Drumm’s execution date is fast approaching. Hundreds of miles away Travis Boyette walks into a church in Topeka, Kansas. Boyette is a serial sexual predator, on parole for his most recent assault. Boyette confesses to Reverend Keith Schroeder that he killed Yarber and knows where her body is buried. Boyette always figured that the Texas authorities would eventually figure out that they had the wrong man and Drumm would be released.

Now, however, the execution is only days away and Drumm had little chance of exoneration. Boyette has an inoperable brain tumor, and he decides to confess to the murder. He tells Schroeder that he is going to die from natural causes in a few months anyway, and he therefore sees no downside to confessing in order to save Drumm’s life.

Schroeder calls Drumm’s lawyer and is ignored. Lots of crank calls and phony confessions come in on the eve of an execution. Schroeder and Boyette mount an all night drive to Texas where Boyette goes on TV and confesses to the crime. No one listens.

All appeals and other court challenges to the execution are now final and Drumm’s last hope is clemency from the governor. Here Grisham takes us through the bizarre world of death penalty politics in Texas. Texas politicians get votes for taking lives in these situations, not saving them.

At this point, we have to end this CliffsNotes version of Grisham’s story; we wouldn’t want to spoil the middle, let alone the ending. Some people criticize Grisham novels as formulaic, but he spins a good yarn. As with his other novels, this is a light read and an enjoyable page turner, perfect for that weekend blizzard or spring escape to the beach. D


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