Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Innocent Man

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The Innocent Man

Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

by John Grisham

The Innocent Man by John Grisham X
The Innocent Man by John Grisham
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2006, 368 pages
    Nov 2007, 448 pages

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The sad tale of Ron Williamson & Dennis Fritz

Ada, Oklahoma local boy Ron Williamson achieved hero status when drafted by baseball's Oakland Athletics in 1971, but within a couple of seasons his baseball dreams had been dashed and he took to drowning his sorrows in alcohol.  In 1978, having twice been charged with rape and found not guilty, and having been left by his wife and having been in and out of mental institutions, he returned to Ada to live with his mother, where he became known around town as a drifter.  One of his few friends was Dennis Fritz, a high school science teacher, who was raising his 8-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, whose mother had been murdered by a deranged neighbor six years earlier.

In 1982, cocktail waitress Debbie Sue Carter was found raped and murdered in her Ada apartment, the crime scene strewn with forensic evidence.  Although there was no evidence connecting Williamson to Carter, and despite strong evidence pointing to another man who was the last to be seen with Carter, local police identified Williamson as a suspect. He took two polygraph tests, which were inconclusive, and was never charged. A few years later, Williamson was in jail awaiting trial on an unrelated charge of writing bad checks; while there, a jailhouse snitch (apparently having been coerced by local police officers) told prosecutors that Williamson had confessed to killing Carter.

In 1987, police arrested both Williamson and Fritz and in 1988 both men were convicted by juries of first degree murder. Fritz received a life sentence. Williamson was sentenced to death. After Fritz was arrested, his daughter went to live with her grandparents; it wasn't until five years later, when she was 13 years old, that she was told of her father's imprisonment, and twelve years before she saw her father again, because he did not want her to see him in prison. 

After numerous appeals, in September 1994 Williamson was just five days from his scheduled execution, when his public defender filed a habeas corpus petition on the grounds of ineffectual assistance of counsel.  A year later the petition was granted, and in April 1997 (18 months later), it was affirmed by the Appeals Court.  At this point, Mark Barrett, Williamson's attorney, gained permission to get a DNA analysis of the physical evidence from the Carter case for Williamson's new trial. Dennis Fritz, along with The Innocence Project, filed a restraining motion to ensure that sufficient evidence material was preserved so that DNA tests could be run on his behalf as well.

The DNA profiles obtained from the crime scene didn't match Williamson or Fritz, but instead matched Glen Gore, the state's main witness at the original trial - who was in jail at the time serving three 40-year sentences for first-degree burglary, kidnapping and shooting with intent to injure. 

Williamson and Fritz were exonerated and released in April 1999.  They filed a civil lawsuit against the Pontotoc County district attorney and other defendants for engineering "a false case that consisted of faulty forensic evidence, fictitious confessions reported by jailhouse snitches with overwhelming motives to lie, in addition to the self-serving lies of the actual murderer;" they won an undisclosed sum. 

In 2004, at the age of 51, Williamson died in a nursing home of cirrhosis of the liver.  Dennis Fritz now lives in Kansas City with his mother.  His daughter, Elizabeth, now in her 30s, lives in Oklahoma.  He published his memoir, Journey to Justice, in 2006.  The PBS website includes a moving recording of Fritz and his family talking about the staggering emotional harm they suffered as a result of his wrongful arrest and imprisonment.

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Innocent Man. It first ran in the November 27, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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