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The Innocent Man

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Reading has always been one of my favorite pastimes. In fact, I read some almost every day. Most of the books I’ve read lately have been the western history and western historical fiction novels, especially since I happened upon books by Terry C. Johnston.

However, Santa put a book in my stocking this Christmas that was not a western but a true crime book written by John Grisham titled "The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice In A Small Town." It was a very compelling story.

Ron Williamson was born and grew up in Ada, Oklahoma, where he was a standout baseball player. His dream was to play in the big leagues.

Drafted by the Oakland Athletics, he played for their minor league team before a stint with the New York Yankee’s minor league team. Recurring arm injuries and a life-long battle with alcohol that began in his teenage years finished his dream of playing professional baseball. He would never recover from the disappointment.

Returning to Ada, Ron had a lot of personal baggage to carry along – drinking, womanizing, barhopping – plus he gradually developed the symptoms of bipolar disease from which he would suffer the rest of his life.

Because of all his problems, he had difficulty holding a steady job and as a result racked up numerous arrests, including charges of two rapes. He testified the sex was consensual in both cases and the juries agreed in both cases. While he spent time in jail for public drunkenness, DUI and check forgery, he never had a reputation for violence. He was a loud and obnoxious drunk, cocky and notorious for his barroom antics.

On Dec. 7, 1982, Debra Sue Carter, a pretty 21-year-old cocktail waitress, was brutally raped and murdered. She died of asphyxiation caused by strangulation with a cord or belt and choking on a washcloth stuffed in her throat.

Ada’s police and district attorney decided Ron Williamson had done the crime and set out to prove it. Williamson’s friend, Dennis Fritz, soon became a suspect as well when the police decided there had been not one killer, but two.

Williamson’s alleged involvement in the crime came about when Glen Gore, the last person to see Debra Carter alive, said he saw Williamson in the bar bothering Carter. No one else remembered seeing him there that night.

Ron took two polygraph tests which were inconclusive and he was never charged. While in jail awaiting trial on an unrelated charge of forgery, a jailhouse snitch told prosecutors she heard Williamson confess to killing Carter. In 1987, five years after Carter’s death, Williamson and Fritz were arrested.

The two were tried separately. At Williamson’s trial the prosecution relied on testimony from Glen Gore, however, microscopic analysis of 17 hairs recovered from the crime scene matched Fritz, Williamson and Debra Carter according to the "expert" who analyzed them for the state.

In 1988, six years after the crime, both men were convicted. Fritz was sentenced to life in prison while Williamson was sentenced to death.

On death row Williamson’s mental health deteriorated. Two years after being sent to prison he was moved to a new facility for death row inmates. It was a cavernous dungeon built underground with no windows, fresh air or sunlight. He went for months without showering and almost starving. He spent nights screaming his innocence and often the guards would taunt him over the intercom, compounding his paranoia. He was usually over-medicated to keep him quiet.

Five days before he was to be executed, on Sept. 22, 1994, his public defender filed a habeas corpus petition on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel, claiming Williamson’s trial lawyer failed to acknowledge his lack of mental competency, had not adequately investigated witnesse and had failed to introduce into evidence a videotaped confession by Ricky Joe Simmons – a mentally ill drifter. Williamson was granted a stay of execution.

On Sept. 9, 1995, a new trial was granted. At this point, DNA testing was authorized.

Williamson was in the prison psychiatric hospital when he learned the DNA analysis revealed that neither he nor Fritz could have raped Debra Carter. Fritz and Williamson were exonerated and released on April 15, 1999. Eleven years after their conviction.

In April 2002, Glen Gore was charged with the rape and murder of Debra Sue Carter. He was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to death. It was later changed to life in prison without parole when the penalty phase jury deadlocked on death 11 to one. So, almost twenty-four years after the crime, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were fully exonerated. Ron Williamson never lived to see it.

In 1999, Williamson died in a nursing home at age 51 from cirrhosis of the liver. Five years after he left prison. Years of hard drinking and all the drugs he’d taken had finally taken their toll. In an interview before his death, Ron Williamson said, "I hope I go to neither heaven nor hell. I wish that at the time of my death that I could go to sleep and never wake up and never have a bad dream. Eternal rest, like you’ve seen on some tombstones, that’s what I hope for. Because I don’t want to go through the Judgment. I don’t want anybody judging me again. I asked myself what was the reason for my birth when I was on death row, if I was going to have to go through all that. What was even the reason for my birth? I almost cursed my mother and dad – it was so bad – for putting me on this earth. If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t be born."

The book hasn’t changed my mind on the death penalty, but it sure does give me pause.

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