Books Chronicle Oklahomans' Wrongful Arrest, Conviction

Thursday, October 12th 2006, 4:42 pm
By: News On 6

ADA, Okla. (AP) _ During the dozen years her brother was behind bars for a brutal murder he didn't commit, Annette Hudson steadfastly defended him to her neighbors.

``They'd say: 'Annette you can't help what you're brother did.' And I would always reply: 'But he didn't do it.'''

She was proven right when her brother, Ron Williamson, and a second man, Dennis Fritz, were exonerated by DNA evidence and freed from prison, a tale that forms the basis of new books by Fritz and best-selling author John Grisham.

``What I'm so happy about is that the city of Ada is going to hear my side of the story, what I feel about the district attorney and the police department,'' said Hudson, who left Ada after her brother's release from prison and now lives in Tulsa.

``I have to live with it every day that my brother was wrongfully convicted. I think they did him wrong.''

Grisham's first nonfiction book, ``The Innocent Man,'' and Fritz's ``Journey Toward Justice'' chronicle the 1982 murder of 21-year-old cocktail waitress Deborah Sue Carter, the 1987 arrests of Williamson and Fritz, their conviction a year later on first-degree murder charges and the torment they endured as innocent men trapped in prison for 12 years.

``It was like being in a tomb. There were no windows,'' said Fritz, now 57 and living in Kansas City, Mo.

Fritz was held in isolation for six months in a stark cell whose main features were a bare light bulb, a smoke-stained plastic mirror and a mattress he described as paper thin.

``I would get night and day mixed up,'' Fritz said. ``If I had committed the crime, I could give reason for the time that I was doing. But the justification was not there.

``I was fighting the effects in the penitentiary and unseen effects of institutionalization. It just gnaws at you every day to let go of the rope. I was just stubborn.''

Williamson, who struggled with mental illness as an adult and was diagnosed bipolar, was particularly troubled during his trial and imprisonment and would lie awake at night screaming his innocence.

``Bloodcurdling screams all through the night,'' Fritz said. ``He would say 'I'm innocent' and scream, and say 'I'm innocent' over and over and over.''

Fritz, a former science teacher and coach, was sentenced to life in prison. Williamson, a second-round draft choice for the Oakland Athletics in 1971, was sentenced to death and was just five days away from his execution when U.S. District Judge Frank Seay, shocked by due process violations that led to his conviction, granted a stay.

DNA tests sought by Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck concluded that forensic evidence from the murder scene, including semen and hair samples, did not match Williamson or Fritz.

They were released from prison in 1999 and filed a federal lawsuit against the state a year later that led to a multimillion dollar settlement in 2003.

Williamson drank heavily following his release from prison and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 2004 at the age of 51.

``Just too much agony and pain for him. Ronny relived that nightmare probably a thousand times more than I would allow myself to do,'' Fritz said of his former friend. ``He just wanted to die. He just wanted out of this world.''

Glen Gore, who gave authorities a statement that linked Williamson to Carter's death and testified against Fritz, was himself convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison earlier this year. Gore's 2003 conviction in the case was overturned.

Carter had been dead longer than she lived when Gore was finally brought to trial and the gory details of Carter's death were resurrected, said former Oklahoma County Assistant District Attorney Richard Wintory, who prosecuted Gore at each of his trials.

Evidence indicated that Gore, who knew Carter from her job as a cocktail waitress at the Coachlight lounge, raped and severely beat her before jamming a sock in her mouth to keep her from screaming and strangled her to death by wrapping an electrical cord around her neck.

``There was a horrible struggle,'' Wintory said.

Carter had rejected Gore at the Coachlight on the night she was killed and witnesses saw her push Gore away from her car afterward, Wintory said. Later, Gore was dropped off by a friend near Carter's apartment and he talked his way through her door.

After Carter's murder, he staged her apartment to make it look like someone else had broken in and committed the crime, Wintory said. There is evidence that Gore knew Williamson at the time.

The fact that Carter's family had to hear the details of her death in four trials, one each for Williamson and Fritz and Gore's two trials, ``increases the horror of what happened in this case,'' said Wintory, now a deputy Pima County district attorney in Tucson, Ariz.

Investigators bought Gore's story and went after Williamson and Fritz, while suppressing evidence that demonstrated their innocence, Wintory said.

``Glen Gore conned them,'' he said. ``Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the murder of Deborah Sue Carter.'' Neither Williamson nor Fritz were with Gore on the night Carter was killed and neither had ever met Carter.

Hudson said Grisham did ``an excellent job'' capturing her brother's character as well as his flaws including previous brushes with the law and allegations of violent sexual assault in earlier cases in which he was tried twice for rape but never convicted.

``He didn't try to make him a hero. He didn't sugar coat it,'' Hudson said. She said her brother ``was a miserable, tormented, pitiful person. It just broke my heart.''

Grisham dedicated his book to Hudson and Williamson's other sister, Renee Simmons of Allen, Texas.

Fritz's book, published by Seven Locks Press of Santa Ana, Calif., is a first-person account of his ordeal that examines the many mistakes and deceptions that led to his conviction and 12-year incarceration.

Fritz said his is a ``companion book'' to Grisham's and that he was encouraged to write it by the author, who endorses it as ``compelling and fascinating'' in comments printed on the book's cover.

``The main thread of the book is the total amount of injustice that I received,'' he said. Police and prosecutors were under intense pressure to solve the case when they arrested Fritz and Williamson five years after Carter's murder, Fritz said.

``I never had a feeling in my life that would come close to that feeling of devastation and overwhelming scrutiny of being falsely accused.''

Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson, who prosecuted Williamson and Fritz and is still the county's top prosecutor, said he presented jurors with what he thought at the time were ``two fairly strong cases'' and was ``just stunned'' when DNA testing proved their innocence.

``What can you say? Our criminal justice system is not perfect. What happened is an aberration,'' Peterson said.

Peterson said he was not aware at the time of their arrest and trial of problems with the police investigation that were later revealed by their federal lawsuit.

``Evidently, there were some reports that never made it to me. It may have made a difference in my charging decision,'' Peterson said.

Carter's mother and other relatives also feel a sense of injustice after sitting through two trials believing Williamson and Fritz were guilty.

``I just despised those two men for years. It really bothers me,'' said Peggy Sanders of Ada, mother of the victim. ``I blame our DA for so much.''

``The people whose faces you feel such anger and hate _ and then it just vanishes,'' said Carter's cousin, Christy Sheppard of Ada. ``I felt this overwhelming sense of guilt.''

Sanders said she spoke to Williamson several times before his death and still communicates with Fritz.

``It's been important for us to hear from Ron and Dennis. It's healing,'' Sanders said.