A Time to Kill: John Grisham Changed the Actual Story to Fit the Narrative

In 1984 author John Grisham witnessed the harrowing testimony of a 12-year-old grape victim at the DeSoto County courthouse in Hernando, Mississippi. Two sisters, Julie Scott, 16 years old, and Marcie Scott, her twelve-year-old sister, had both been raped, brutally beaten, and nearly murdered by Willie James Harris. Unlike Grisham’s depiction, however, the Scotts were white and their assailant was black.




Clarion Ledger

The real-life crime that inspired John Grisham to write “A Time To Kill” has remained a secret since he began writing it almost three decades ago.

“It was one of those crimes you never forget,” said the 58-year-old, best-selling author, who began his career as a lawyer in the Memphis suburb of Southaven. “I was praying I would not get appointed to represent the defendant.”

In the past, he has discussed the testimony he watched a young girl deliver but has shied away from discussing the actual case.

In an interview with The Clarion-Ledger, Grisham confirmed the case he watched involved the 1984 rapes of two teenage sisters in a remote farmhouse not many miles from his law office then.

Deputies arrested Willie James Harris, who confessed. Days later, Grisham heard the confession on tape, where the man shared details with all the emotion of reading a shopping list.

“It was pretty cold blooded — and also infuriating,” Grisham said. “It made you think revenge. He was really a nasty character.”

On July 11, 1984, the steamy sun beat down on Harris and his 17-year-old accomplice as they drove through a rural area near Southaven, looking for houses to break in.

Although just 21, Harris was newly paroled after spending 2½ years in the state prison — far short of the six-year sentence he received for two different burglaries. Time on the inside, however, hardened him, rather than changed his ways.

He was arrested for stealing a bicycle in Southaven — and that was before he had reportedly robbed an 80-year-old woman. The sheriff tried to get Harris’ parole revoked, but failed.

Heading down a gravel road, Harris and his accomplice spotted a farmhouse with no cars outside. They made their way to the front porch.

Smashing the front window, Harris entered the house, where two sisters, ages 16 and 12, were alone. The older sister, who had just finished taking a shower, spotted him and screamed. She attempted to lock herself in the bathroom, but Harris rammed his shoulder into the door.

The younger sister tried to hide in her bedroom, only to be met by Harris.

Over the next hour, Harris raped and beat the girls, leaving them for dead.

………On Oct. 29, 1984, the trial began in Hernando, and Grisham was there. “I was hanging out in the courthouse, nosy and bored,” he recalled. “I had no other clients of my own.”

When the younger sister testified, the judge took the unusual step of clearing the courtroom, letting only lawyers and reporters remain.

Grisham stayed and listened to the girl, who had just turned 13, share the horrors of that day.

Harris pointed a gun at her and stuffed her in the closet, where she was forced to listen to the screams of her sister and the sounds of the man attacking her. He then opened the closet and dragged her out, she said. “(He) made me take off my clothes and put me on the bed and raped me.”

He stuffed her back in the closet and took her sister back. She once again heard screams.

“Afterward I heard silence and then he came back into my room and jerked opened the closet and told me to get out,” she testified.

He held a bloody shotgun, which he smashed over her head, splintering into pieces. He then grabbed a bed sheet and choked her.

“I blacked out,” she said. “When I came to, I was hanging off the bed and my head was bleeding and there was blood on the carpet. And I went out of my bedroom to try and find my sister.” She found her in the next room. “I could see that she had been stabbed many times,” she testified, “and her head was bleeding.”

She kept trying to call for an ambulance, but the call wouldn’t go through, she said. “My sister told me to get help and I went back in my room, and I put on underwear and a pair of jeans and a red pajama top.”

She grabbed two knives from the kitchen and crossed a field to a neighbor’s house, trying to get help.

She knocked on the door, but her face was so bloody and bruised that the neighbor refused to let her in. It was only when she spoke her name that the neighbor recognized her.

Some in the courtroom wiped away tears, and Grisham could feel them welling in his eyes as he looked at the girl.

“At times, she was brave. At times, she was frail,” he said. “It was gut wrenching.”

The rollercoaster of emotions careened from love to hate to a desire for retribution, he said.

During a break, he said he stared at Harris, thinking that if he had been the father and had a gun, the defendant would be dead.

The jury convicted Harris, who was sentenced to life without parole. His accomplice got three years in prison for robbery.

After the trial, the DeSoto Times quizzed the freshman lawmaker.

“I wish we had the death penalty in a case like this. This case bothered me, and it still bothers me,” replied Grisham, who began opposing capital punishment after researching his 1994 book, “The Chamber.”

His anger led him to wonder — what would a jury do to a father who killed his daughter’s rapist?

The reality of black thugs raping and brutally assaulting white girls was not the kind of story that would fit the prevailing image of White Southerners and necktie parties. It was so “gut-wrenching” that he changed the rapist’s ethnicity from black to White.  The real truth wasn’t inspiring enough.

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