Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson were wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of 21-year-old Debbie Carter, whose death shook the town of Ada, Oklahoma in 1982.
After over a decade of appeals, Williamson and Fritz were eventually exonerated and cleared of any wrongdoing, after it was found that DNA evidence overruled any possibility of their being at the scene of the crime. Glen Gore was subsequently arrested and charged with the rape and murder of Carter. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Fritz and Williamson’s stories were the inspiration behind John Grisham’s The Innocent Man: Murder & Injustice in a Small Town, the first non-fiction crime story that the author would write. That book has since been adapted by Netflix into a six-part docu-series, titled The Innocent Man.
Fritz was 49 years old when he was released from prison. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Fritz Was a Middle School Teacher Prior to His Arrest in 1987
Fritz was a junior high school teacher at the Noble and Konawa public school system in Oklahoma prior to his arrest in 1987, per an archived article of The Oklahoman.
According to Grisham, Fritz grew up in Kansas City, eventually earning a degree in biology from Southeastern Oklahoma State University in 1971. Fritz moved from Kansas City to Ada, 389 miles south, after his wife died. He and his mother raised his daughter, Elizabeth, and he coached basketball on the side in the town of Noble, an hour away.
2. Fritz’s Wife Was Murdered by Their Neighbor in Front of Their Daughter, Elizabeth, When She Was Two Years Old
Fritz was a single parent raising his daughter in the 1980s, after his wife was shot and killed by a “deranged” neighbor when their daughter, Elizabeth, was two years old. Grisham wrote that on Christmas Day in 1975, Mary was shot in the head by a 17-year-old neighbor while she was sitting in a rocking chair inside their house.
Fritz’s daughter went to live with his parents after he was charged with murder; she was 13 years old when she was first told of her father’s imprisonment, according to PBS. What’s more, Fritz refused to allow her to visit him in prison, so it would be another 12 years before he saw his daughter again.
To Frontline, Fritz said of his relationship with his daughter, “The harm that [this wrongful imprisonment] did to me was that it took 12 years out of my life, away from my family members. I was cheated of watching my daughter grow and flower into a woman. No amount of money on the face of the earth could even begin to make an amend for what happened.”
3. Fritz & Williamson Were Charged With the Rape and Murder of Carter in 1987
Carter’s body was found in December, 1982. Medical experts determined that she was raped, sodomized with a ketchup bottle, and strangled to death. Five years later, police charged Fritz and Williamson with her rape and murder, citing information by informants and hair evidence from the scene of the crime.
According to PBS, Fritz would often visit Ada in his spare time, and had slowly became friends with Williamson throughout his visits. They would play guitar together and go to bars together, PBS reports, and they often went to the Coachlight Club, where Carter worked at the time of her death. However, according to John Grisham in The Innocent Man, Fritz “rarely went to the Coachlight [where Carter worked] and had not been there for months prior to the murder. No witness placed him there; in fact, by March 1983 no witness had mentioned his name.”
Throughout his trial and sentencing period, Fitz maintained that he had never met or seen Carter, let alone been in her apartment. His sentencing (as well as that of Williamson’s) was hung largely upon the similarity of hair samples between those found on Carter’s apartment and those found on Fritz and Williamson (though hair sample identification is not exact, and has become a controversial practice), as well as the signaling of informants. James Harjo, a convicted burglar who had shared a cell with Fritz, claimed that he told him he hadn’t meant to hurt Carter, The Daily Oklahoman reported.
In a letter to a local newspaper in 1987, Fritz wrote (via The Oklahoman), “No one knows what it feels like to be accused of these degrading and immoral allegations and have your freedom taken away for something you know you didn’t do or even know about.” He further called his situation ironic, because of the death of his wife.
Fritz was sentenced to life in prison, and Williamson was given the death sentence. At the time of Fritz’s sentencing in 1988, The Daily Oklahoman reports that Fritz stood up and told jurors, “Ladies and gentlemen, I would just like to say to you my Lord Jesus in heaven knows I didn’t do this. I want you to know that I forgive you, and I will be praying for you.”
4. Fritz Contacted the Innocence Project After Several Denied Appeals of His Conviction; He & Williamson Were Exonerated in 1999
Watch for @JohnGrisham's The Innocent Man docuseries on Netflix December 14th! Photo was taken in 2012 of me with Dennis Fritz (one of four men convicted in the case) and his mother. Fritz and Ron Williamson were the only two exonerated in 1999. https://t.co/fwEGkcqlVT pic.twitter.com/YXfCCgJoxr
— Joan Treppa (@JoanTreppa) December 6, 2018
After several failed attempts at appealing his conviction, Fritz contacted The Innocence Project, who learned that Williamson’s lawyers had filed for the testing of physical evidence DNA testing through appeals. The Innocence Project then filed an injunction requesting that Fritz’s case was considered jointly with Williamson’s.
Subsequent DNA testing of the sperm found at the scene of the crime revealed neither Williamson nor Fritz to be a match. Fritz and Williamson were exonerated of any wrongdoing and released from prison in April of 1999.
Following his release from prison at 49 years old, Fritz returned to Kansas City. At the time of his release, Fritz said to The Daily Oklahoman, “I wouldn’t say I’m angry at this point. But I’ve been angry—very bitter…I’ve overcome those feelings of anger and embitterment. I would like to do everything I can to prevent this from happening to someone else.”
Of the news that Glen Gore had been announced as the new suspect in the case (Gore was later charged and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Carter), Fritz said, “[It’s] the icing on the cake. It makes everything total. I’ve wanted total exoneration from this charge. It’s an unbelievable feeling. Unbelievable.”
To The Daily Oklahoman in 2001, Fritz explained what his life had been like for the past two years. He said, “It’s really hard to explain, even though I’ve been asked hundreds of times what it’s like. To have been in prison, convicted for a heinous murder for that many years and then to just have them open the doors and let you go free one day— people just could never understand.”
5. Dennis Fritz’s Book, ‘Journey Toward Justice,’ Was Released at the Same Time as The Innocent Man & Is Available on Amazon
Following the release from prison, Fitz wrote a memoir, titled Journey Toward Justice, which detailed the story of his arrest and wrongful imprisonment. The book was released in 2006. Though the specifics of the settlement are unclear, Fritz and Williamson did settle a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit.
In May, 2008, just under a decade after Fritz and Williamson were exonerated, Peggy Sanders was reunited with the Williamson family (Williamson himself was dead at the time), Grisham, and Fritz himself, in the name of a benefit gala for the Innocent Project.
The New York Times wrote an article about a moment at the gala where Fritz, shockingly, asked Sanders to dance, and she accepted. Sanders told The New York Times that she had forgiven them both a long time ago, saying, “I had to do it for my daughter. They had become victims of this, too. People still don’t believe they’re innocent. I was just at a funeral, and a woman come up to me and said, ‘I know them two done it.’ I said, ‘No, they didn’t.’ ”
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