In The Last Juror, published in 2004, John Grisham explores race relations and racism in the American South of the 1970s. Although the title may lead readers to expect a taut courtroom thriller like Grisham's earlier works, this character-driven novel follows the growing relationship between twenty three-year-old Willie Traynor, new owner of the Ford County Times, and Calia Ruffin, also known as "Miss Callie," a fifty nine-year old black woman. She is the mother of eight children, seven of whom have earned Ph.D.s—a remarkable accomplishment for the period. The "juror" of the title does refer to an important legal case that acts as the centerpiece for the book—Danny Padgitt's explosive trial for the rape and brutal murder of a young local widow. Convicted of the murder but sentenced to life imprisonment instead of death, Padgitt spends ten years in jail. When he gets out, jurors from his case start to die under mysterious circumstances.
Over the course of the story, Grisham introduces many of Clanton, Mississippi's residents and local characters, people like politicians, war veterans, and decaying aristocracy who make the town colorful and unique.
Part 1: Chapters 1-5
The Last Juror opens with the news that through "patient mismanagement and loving neglect," the small independent newspaper The Ford County Times is going bankrupt. It is 1970, and Joyner William "Willie" Traynor, a twenty-three-year-old college dropout who works as a reporter for the paper, finds himself facing unemployment. Instead, thanks to luck and a wealthy grandmother, Willie buys the paper, intent on making his living. Just months after Willie takes over as editor, Rhoda Kassellaw, a young widow with two small children, is brutally raped and murdered. After seeing the intruder, the children run to their neighbor, Aaron Deece, who finds the dying Rhoda. With her dying breath, she names her killer—Danny Padgitt. In the meantime, Padgitt, who is half-drunk at the time of the murder, flees in his truck. He tries to make it home to Padgitt Island, the family's private kingdom in Ford County, where wanted criminals can hide and never be found. Driving recklessly, he has a bad accident on the way and is immediately arrested by the police. The incident fuels much gossip. Willie and his photographer Wiley get as much information as possible, which Willie prints, to his advantage. At Danny's bail hearing, his lawyer Lucien Wilbanks immediately threatens Willy with a libel suit and later calls the judge's attention to the paper, trying for a gag order on all proceedings. The judge praises the story in front of the packed courtroom and denies Danny bail.
Willie, who is still rather naive about the newspaper business, learns from his senior reporter Baggy Suggs that he will not be sued for libel, since he did not break the law. He also learns Danny is being held in the only decent cell in the decrepit county jail, known as "the suite." Oddly, he is being given special treatment by the corrupt county sheriff, Mackey Don Coley. After Willie does some investigating, he writes another sensational story about Danny's unusual privileges. Because the Padgitts and Lucien are unpopular, the people of the county love the story. However, soon after the article runs, a bomb is found in the Times offices. Suspicion falls on the Padgitts, who are known to be experienced arsonists, but the sheriff stalls the investigation. When Wiley is viciously beaten in his own driveway, local lawyer Harry Rex Vonner gives Willie a gun and teaches him to shoot. For a while, Willie carries the gun, but he soon tires of it and leaves the weapon in his car. Lucien holds a hearing for a change of venue for the trial, citing the local newspaper's biased coverage, and Willie is called to testify. Lucien makes him look ignorant on the stand, and Willie leaves, enraged. Around this time, Willie also meets Miss Calia Ruffin, or Miss Callie as he calls her. She invites him for the first of what will be many lunches.
Lucien withdraws his motion for a change of venue. The District Attorney Ernie Gaddis petitions for a larger and secret jury pool, and the judge grants it. Both the District Attorney and Judge Loomis fear jury tampering by the Padgitts, either through bribes or threats. In the meantime, Willie visits more with Miss Callie, who questions whether he is a Christian and worries about his soul. He learns more about her children, and publishes a two-part front-page series about the Ruffins. Lucien sends him a note praising the story. When the jury summonses go out, Miss Callie learns she is called. She dislikes judging another person, but knows it is her duty. She is the last juror picked, and is proud to be a black juror on such an impor00tant case. The trial begins, and one of the witnesses for the prosecution is Ginger McClure, Rhoda's sister. After the opening day's proceedings, the judge sequesters the jury so they will not be influenced by the newspaper, or easily threatened or bribed by the Padgitts. Later that night, Ginger asks Willie for a drink and they end up spending the evening together. She sleeps at his apartment, but nothing sexual happens between them.
The trial continues, with the State calling all of its witnesses. Its last witness is Mr. Aaron Deece, the man who heard Rhoda's last words. Lucien begins the defense by painting Danny as an innocent boy who has been framed. He calls as a witness Lydia Vince, a married woman who swears on the stand that at the time of the murder, she and Danny were having sex. On cross-examination, Gaddis reveals information that makes it appear the woman is being paid off by someone, possibly the Padgitts. When the session ends for the day, Willie and Ginger are depressed by the outcome. After getting drunk, they have sex. By the next day, Gaddis has found Malcolm Vince, Lydia's estranged husband. He testifies that Lydia must be lying, since their marriage broke up over her lesbian tendencies. Lucien, knowing Lydia is a bought witness, tries to fix the damage but gives up. Danny Padgitt insists on testifying on his own behalf, against Lucien's advice. As Lucien has predicted, Danny is terrible on the stand, insisting that all the physical evidence against him is part of a conspiracy. When he realizes no one believes him, he loses his temper and threatens the jury that he will "get" every one of them. After closing arguments, the jury deliberates for a short time before arriving at a guilty verdict. They must now vote on the penalty—death or life in prison. No one is allowed to tell the jury that, at that time in Mississippi, "life" could mean less than twenty years. While waiting for the jury to decide, Willie and Ginger spend their last night together. He would like to pursue a deeper relationship, but she wants no memories of Clanton. The next day, because the jury cannot reach a decision, the judge is forced to give a life sentence. Miss Callie faints while leaving the courtroom and is rushed to the hospital, where doctors find her blood pressure is too high. She refuses to discuss the verdict. The county is shocked and dismayed by Danny's sentence. Many people blame Miss Callie and say that because she is black, she is the one who would not allow the death penalty. Then Willie reveals to the reader that within twenty-four hours, Clanton has forgotten the trial, as there is something more important to focus on.
Part 2: Chapters 21-25
The people of Clanton discover they will have to desegregate their schools in just six weeks, before they open for the new school year. Many of the white citizens panic, while most of the black citizens appear victorious. Willie is pleased because the announcement is good for his paper's circulation. The high school football season also helps with both readership and the integration problem as a young black boy...
(The entire section is 2783 words.)