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...
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