Burden of Innocence
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photo of williamsonron williamson

Baseball field, Norman, Oklahoma
Williamson had been drafted by the Oakland Athletics before being sentenced to death
Served 11 years of a death sentence

In 1982, a young woman employed as a barmaid at the Coachlight Club in Ada, Oklahoma, left work late one evening and was found dead the next morning, raped and strangled. Six years later, Ron Williamson, a former minor league baseball player in the Kansas City Royals system, and his friend Dennis Fritz were arrested and convicted of the crime. Williamson, who suffered from mental illness, was convicted on the testimony of jailhouse snitches, a confession that he had had a dream about the crime, and microscopic hair comparisons linking him and Fritz to seventeen head and pubic hairs found on and under the body. Glen Gore, the star witness for the prosecution, said Williamson was in the Coachlight bothering the barmaid on the night of the murder. Twenty-three other people in the Coachlight, many of whom had known Williamson for years, had not seen him. Williamson was represented by a blind lawyer who lacked adequate assistance and who did nothing about the fact that his client was actively psychotic at the time of the trial. Williamson came within five days of execution. He spent much of his time on death row without proper medication, screaming that he was innocent and banging his head against the cell door. After his conviction was vacated by a federal court on the grounds that his lawyer was ineffective, DNA testing was performed in 1999 demonstrating that neither Fritz nor Williamson was the source of the seventeen head and pubic hairs found on the victim or the semen recovered from her. On April 15, 1999, Williamson was released from the same courthouse where he had been convicted. The day before Williamson was released -- after it was disclosed that DNA results from the semen matched Glen Gore -- Gore had escaped from a work-release program where he was serving time. He eventually turned himself in and has been charged with the barmaid's murder.

"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."

Text and image excerpted from The Innocents by Taryn Simon. Copyright Umbrage Editions (2003)


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published may 1, 2003

photograph copyright © ed kashi/corbis
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