Dennis Fritz and his co-defendant Ron Williamson were convicted in 1988, in Pontotoc County, Oklahoma, of the murder of Debra Sue Carter. Fritz was sentenced to life in prison. Williamson was sent to death row.
The crime and investigation
The 21-year-old victim left her waitressing job and was found raped and murdered in her apartment the following day. Fritz and Williamson were known to frequent the establishment where the victim worked. The prosecution presented evidence that the victim had previously complained to a friend that they “made her nervous.” Williamson was seen at the restaurant on the night of the murder without Fritz.
Fritz was not charged until five years after the murder (delayed by state exhumation of the victim after an incorrect analysis of fingerprints at the scene was noted). An inmate that Fritz was paired with while in custody eventually came forward and stated that Fritz had confessed to the murder. This jailhouse snitch gave a two-hour taped interview revealing what Fritz had allegedly told to him. Conveniently, this confession came one day before the prosecution would have been forced to drop the charges against Fritz. In addition to witness Glenn Gore placing Williamson at the bar on the night of the murder, another informant testified that she had heard Williamson threaten to harm his mother as he had the victim. Additionally, police had statements from Williamson regarding a dream he had about the crime.
Forensic testing was performed on various items of evidence. An analyst testified that 11 pubic hairs and two head hairs from the crime scene were “consistent” with Fritz’s hair. On the stand at trial, the analyst explained, “This means they match, if you want it in one word.” Because there is not adequate empirical data on the frequency of various class characteristics in human hair, it is impossible to say definitively that strands of hair “match.” To read more about MIP’s large-scale review of microscopic hair comparison cases just like this one, click here.
The path to exoneration
After he was sentenced to life in prison, Fritz’s appeals were denied. He later contacted the Innocence Project for help. The physical evidence was going to be tested due to appeals filed by Ron Williamson’s lawyers. Fritz filed an injunction to make sure that the evidence would not be totally consumed until the cases were joined with regard to DNA testing.
DNA testing revealed that neither Fritz nor Williamson contributed the DNA evidence found on the victim. Further testing proved that none of the many hairs that were labeled as “matches” belonged to them. The profile obtained from the DNA evidence matched Glenn Gore, one of the State’s witnesses at trial. Gore escaped from work release shortly after testing was concluded and was later apprehended; he pled guilty to the murder of Debra Sue Carter.
Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson were exonerated and released in April 1999 after 11 years. Williamson had, at one point, come within five days of execution. Three years later, with the help of local attorney and MIP Board member Cheryl Pilate, the pair won a financial settlement. Sadly, Williamson, who deteriorated rapidly during his time in prison, passed away in 2004.
Since his release, Fritz has been speaking publicly about his experience, and bringing awareness to innocence issues. Fritz, a long-standing member of MIP’s Board of Directors where he advocates for the exoneration and release of innocent people, wrote a book about his experiences called Journey Toward Justice. He is also the subject of the John Grisham’s nonfiction book The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.
To read more about Fritz and Williamson, click here.
Summary adapted from Maurice Possley’s overview available on the National Registry of Exonerations.