Burden of Innocence
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photo of dennis fritzdennis fritz

Year of incident: 1982
Conviction: First degree murder
Sentence: Life
Year of conviction: 1988
Year of exoneration: 1999
Sentence served: 11 years

In 1982, high school science teacher Dennis Fritz was living near Ada, Okla., raising his 8-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, whose mother had been murdered by a deranged neighbor when Elizabeth was 2 years old. Fritz frequently visited Ada, where he befriended Ron Williamson, a tall, lanky local who suffered from mental disorders. The two would often play guitar together and then go out to local bars. One of the places they frequented was the Coachlight Club.

On Dec. 8, 1982, Debra Sue Carter, a waitress at the Coachlight Club, was found raped and murdered in her apartment. A witness, Glen Gore, came forward to say that Williamson was at the bar bothering Carter on the night of the murder. Fritz, due to his association with Williamson, also came under suspicion. Fritz and Williamson were both questioned by police and then released due to lack of evidence.

photo of dennis fritz

Fritz at the time of his arrest.

A few years later, with no one yet charged for the murder, a jailhouse snitch came forward and claimed that Williamson, while in jail on unrelated charges, had confessed to killing Carter. On May 8, 1987, Fritz was arrested along with Williamson for the rape and murder. The police claimed that hair evidence from the crime scene that had been microscopically analyzed matched both men. While Fritz was awaiting trial in county jail, other snitches claimed that they heard Fritz confess to the crime. The snitches' testimony, along with the hair samples, were the prosecution's main evidence during trial.

On April 12, 1988, Fritz was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Williamson, as the primary suspect, was sent to Death Row.

After several appeals of his conviction were denied, Fritz contacted The Innocence Project. At the time, Williamson's public defenders had successfully gained permission to perform DNA tests on the physical evidence, and Fritz had to file an injunction so that the evidence would not be totally consumed in the tests on Williamson's behalf. In 1999, DNA testing revealed that neither Fritz nor Williamson had raped the victim. Further testing also proved that none of the hairs belonged to either of the men.

photo of a headline

Local paper heralds Fritz's first day as a free man.

Fritz and Williamson were exonerated and released on April 15, 1999. The profile obtained from the semen evidence matched Glen Gore, the state's main witness at trial. Gore had been serving three 40-year sentences for unrelated charges of first-degree burglary, kidnapping, and shooting with intent to injure. In April 2002, Gore was charged with the rape and murder of Debra Sue Carter; he pled not guilty. His trial is set to begin on May 12, 2003.

Fritz and Williamson subsequently filed a civil suit against several parties involved in their arrest and imprisonment and settled for an undisclosed sum of money.

Shortly after the crime, Fritz's daughter went to live with her grandparents in southwestern Oklahoma. She was 13 years old when she was first told of her father's arrest and sentence of life imprisonment. Fritz refused to allow her to see him in prison, though they did stay in touch by writing each other and talking on the phone. It wasn't until his release, nearly 12 years later, that Elizabeth finally saw her father.

"The harm that it did to me was that it took 12 years out of my life, away from my family members," Fritz told FRONTLINE. "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."

Elizabeth, who is now 29, lives in Oklahoma City. Fritz and his mother live in Kansas City, where they are trying to enjoy some of the comforts the settlement money can provide.


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published may 1, 2003

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