Burden of Innocence
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photo of ron williamsonron williamson

Year of incident: 1982
Conviction: First degree murder
Sentence: Death
Year of conviction: 1988
Year of exoneration: 1999
Sentence served: 12 years

In December 1982, Debra Sue Carter, a 21-year-old waitress, was found dead in her garage apartment. The killer had broken into her home, raped and strangled her, then had written on her body with ketchup. She was last seen alive at work at the Coachlight Club in Ada, Okla., where Ron Williamson and his friend, Dennis Fritz, often visited.

Williamson had been a star baseball player before injuries sidelined his career. He had been in and out of mental institutions, suffering from a variety of psychiatric disorders. Fritz, his friend, was a high school science teacher.

Shortly after the crime, police identified Williamson as a suspect. He took two polygraph tests, which were inconclusive, and was never charged. A few years later, Williamson was in jail awaiting trial on an unrelated charge of writing bad checks. While there, a jailhouse snitch told prosecutors that Williamson had confessed to killing Carter. In 1987, police arrested both Williamson and Fritz.

The two were tried separately. At Williamson's trial, which began on April 21, 1988, the prosecution presented evidence from Glen Gore, their main witness, that Carter had complained to a friend that Williamson "made her nervous." While Fritz and Williamson had little memory of where they were on the night of the murder, Gore said that Williamson had been at the club that night. A microscopic hair analysis was conducted on 17 hairs recovered from the crime scene; state experts insisted that the hairs matched Fritz, Williamson, and the victim Carter.

In 1988 both men were convicted by juries of first degree murder. Fritz received a life sentence. Williamson was sentenced to death.

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Williamson while in prison.

In Oklahoma's state penitentiary, Williamson's psychological health deteriorated. Two years after he was sent to prison, he was moved to a brand new facility for Death Row inmates, a cavernous dungeon built underground without windows, fresh air, or sunlight. He went for months without showering and barely ate. He paced his 7-by-15-foot cell, screaming about his innocence. At night, the guards on duty would sometimes taunt him over the intercom.

Williamson filed numerous appeals; all were denied. On Sept. 22, 1994, just five days before he was scheduled to be executed, Williamson's public defender filed a habeas corpus petition. (Writs of habeas corpus are granted so that individuals in prison who have exhausted all of their available appeals can nonetheless contest their imprisonment in a court of law.) The petition was filed on the grounds of ineffectual assistance of counsel, claiming that Williamson's trial lawyer failed to acknowledge Williamson's lack of mental competency to stand trial, hadn't adequately investigated witnesses, and had failed to introduce as evidence a videotaped confession of the crime by Ricky Joe Simmons (a mentally ill drifter). Williamson was granted a stay of execution and moved to a special care unit for psychiatric treatment while the court considered the petition.

On Sept. 9, 1995, the habeas petition was granted by district court and affirmed by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on April 10, 1997. Williamson was to have a new trial.

At this point, Mark Barrett, Williamson's attorney, gained permission to get a DNA analysis of the physical evidence from the Carter case for Williamson's new trial. Dennis Fritz, along with The Innocence Project, filed restraining motions to ensure that enough evidence was preserved and could be tested for both of their cases.

Williamson was in the prison psychiatric hospital when he learned that the DNA tests revealed that neither he nor Fritz could have raped the victim. In fact, the DNA results also proved that the experts had misidentified every single hair taken from the crime scene: none of them belonged to either of the two men. The DNA profile obtained from the crime scene, however, matched Glen Gore, the state's main witness at trial.

photo of ron williamson

Williamson learns he is free.

Fritz and Williamson were exonerated and released on April 15, 1999. At the time, Gore was 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.

Williamson and Fritz filed a civil lawsuit accusing the Pontotoc County district attorney and other defendants -- including the city of Ada, the state of Oklahoma, Gore, and county police officers -- of engineering "a false case that consisted of faulty forensic evidence, fictitious confessions reported by jailhouse snitches with overwhelming motives to lie, in addition to the self-serving lies of the actual murderer." The lawsuit also named state Department of Corrections officials, alleging that Williamson was the target of "malicious and sadistic action" because he was placed in solitary confinement as an alternative to providing him treatment for a mental disorder. Williamson and Fritz settled the suit and both men received an undisclosed sum of money.

Now 49 years old, Williamson struggles with his psychological illness. He was unable to live on his own after he was released from prison and finally moved in with his sister, Annette, who eventually became his legal guardian. He spends much of his time smoking outside and practicing his guitar. Annette has uprooted her lifelong home in Ada and moved to Tulsa to watch over her brother and care for him. Most recently, Ron bought an apartment with the money from his settlement and is trying again to live on his own.

[Editor's Note: On Dec. 4, 2004, Williamson died in a nursing home at the age of 51. As reported by The New York Times, his sister Annette said that he had recently been diagnosed as having cirrhosis of the liver.]


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published may 1, 2003

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