An unstated yet central premise of “Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted,” is that anyone – anyone – can be sent to prison for murder.

In the United States, this injustice falls preponderantly on people who are black. But as the stories in this book underscore, no one is immune. The snare of wrongful conviction can steal years and decades from the lives of daycare moms, law students, small business managers, and people innocently sitting in their car watching the ocean.

“Anatomy of Innocence” pairs the Kafkaesque experiences of 15 exonerated individuals with pedigreed writers who tell their stories. The list of contributors include Maine’s own international best-selling espionage author Gayle Lynds, writing here with her husband, John Sheldon, a former defense attorney, prosecutor, and judge; Lee Child, author of the popular Jack Reacher thriller series; and the late Pulitzer- and Tony-Award winner, playwright Arthur Miller, who years ago wrote an essay published here for the first time about a wrongfully convicted teenager. The book’s introduction is by best-selling legal thriller novelist Scott Turow.

The series of profiles follows a loose progression of events that typify the hellish journey through the penal system. Each profile focuses on one or two defining aspects of the journey, from what it feels like to be picked up, interrogated, tried and convicted, to imprisonment and the struggle to maintain hope and sanity against long odds, and finally to being exonerated and freed.

Esteemed mystery writer Sara Paretsky, tells of the cruel injustice that befell David Bates, a Chicago teenager, in 1983 in “The Trip to Doty Road: the Interrogation.” Bates’ ordeal started when detectives and uniformed officers showed up at his home, held a gun to his mother’s head and told her they needed to take her son in, “just to ask him some questions.”

Thus began a 24-hour interrogation, marked by brutality and terrorizing. In the early hours, Bates thought, “what they were doing didn’t seem criminal at first, it just seemed part of the territory, of being a black kid on the South Side.” He was slapped, kicked and punched. He wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom. He was suffocated with a plastic bag. The real horror, however, was the threat that if he didn’t confess, the tag team of officers would take him to the end of Doty Road on the edge of Chicago to the city trash dump, “and you won’t be coming back.”

They promised him if he signed a confession, they would let him go home. They coached him what to say. The forced confession, Child writes, “destroyed part of David’s sense of who he was.” Instead of going home, he went to prison for 11 years. More than 20 years later, he was exonerated and released. He still carries body memories of his torture. There are “days where he can’t walk,” Paretsky writes. “The powerlessness he felt at his torturers’ hands sweeps through is body, paralyzing him.”

In “The Fortune Cookie: The Lessons Learned,” Lee Child recounts the case of ex-Marine Kirk Bloodsworth, convicted and sentenced to death for raping and bashing in a 9-year-old girl’s head until she was lifeless. “When torn and bloodied and pulped 9-year-old corpses turn up in small towns… all bets are off,” Child writes. Two little boys who’d been near where the crime occurred provided descriptions of a man they’d seen nearby. After the artist’s sketch was broadcast, Kirk was fingered by a disgruntled neighbor as being the killer. Kirk suspected that the boys were coached in their testimony at his trial. Despite having numerous individuals corroborating his alibi, he was convicted.

Bloodsworth viewed his incarceration in a Maryland prison as “captivity,” and he drew on his Marine prisoner-of-war training to endure it. He’d loved Triumph motorcycles, and during his 10 years in prison, he endlessly disassembled one in his mind, cleaned and oiled the parts, then reassembled it. Evidence was eventually retested using DNA analysis, then a new and relatively little used technology. In 1993, Kirk became the first person on death row to be freed in the country based on such analysis.

“A Study in Sisyphus: Serving Time,” tell the story of Audrey Edmunds, a middle-class, stay-at-home mom who was accused and convicted of the death of a 7-month-old baby she cared in her home in Waunakee, Wisconsin. Gayle Lynds and John Sheldon tell the story of how an autopsy showed cranial bleeding, pointing toward “shaken baby syndrome.” Edmunds was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Lying awake in the middle of the night in her prison bunk, Edmunds was plagued by the “uncontrollable endless cycle of emotions… (how) fear of the guards turned into anger at them, which triggered anger at how the prosecutor had attacked her at trial, which recalled her disbelief at the verdict, and the pain of pubic disgrace, and how unjust the punishment was, and the horror of losing her family, missing (her husband), heartache for her children, despair that her prison time was passing so slowly… an on, and on, and over again.”

Through it all, “hope was the best anesthetic for Audrey’s wheeling emotions.” But hope often dimmed. An appeal was denied. Her husband divorced her, seeking sole custody of the children so he wouldn’t have to take them to see her. She kept to herself, did her work and was a model prisoner. The Wisconsin Innocence Project took up her case, but advancement was intermittent due to law students working on her case leaving at the end of the year. She was told at a parole review hearing that if she would confess, the time to the next hearing would be shortened. But she refused. She did not want to have “‘child murderer’ seared on her forever, poisoning her relationship with everyone, especially her children.”

Eventually, a circuit court of appeals granted her a new trail. Substantial new medical evidence called into doubt the reliability of shaken baby syndrome. The court ruled that the original trial judge’s decision denying a retrial was an abuse of his discretion. Today, Aubrey Edmunds lives quietly in a small Wisconsin town, enjoying her reunification with her four grown children.

A theme running through many of the profiles in the collection is the faith against long odds that justice would win out one day. Another common thread is the work many of the exonerees do after their release on behalf of innocent people who are still imprisoned.

“The Anatomy of Innocence” is a harrowing account of injustice and a tribute to the strength and resiliency of ordinary individuals facing cruel, dehumanizing circumstances. The book is also a tribute to those who work on behalf of their exoneration.

In 2013, U.S. prisons held 2.2 million prisoners – representing 25 percent of incarcerated people worldwide, making America the world’s leading jailer. It is impossible to know how many individuals now incarcerated are innocent, but estimates start around 5 percent. At minimum, that’s 110,000 people.

Whatever the number, it’s an incalculable assault on personal dignity. The foreclosed hopes and dreams – not to mention lost moments of tenderness and intimacy with loved ones – of innocent people punished for crimes they did not commit is nothing short of an American tragedy.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. His novel was also a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via his website:

frankosmithstories.com