Tom Landrith was a third-generation native of Pontotoc County. He attended Ada High School and played on two state championship football teams. College and law school were at the University of Oklahoma, and when he passed the bar, he settled into his hometown and joined a small firm. In 1994, he ran for district court judge and easily defeated G. C. Mayhue, who had defeated Ronald Jones in 1990.
Judge Landrith was well acquainted with Ron Williamson and the Carter murder, and when the Tenth Circuit affirmed Judge Seay, he knew the case was headed back to Ada, to his courtroom. Typical of a small town, he had represented Ron on a drunk-driving charge in the early 1980s; they briefly played on the same softball team; Landrith played high school football with Johnny Carter, Debbie's uncle; and Landrith and Bill Peterson were old friends. During Ron's murder trial in 1988, Landrith had slipped into the courtroom several times out of curiosity. Of course, he knew Barney well.
It was Ada, and everybody knew everybody.
Landrith was a popular judge, folksy and funny, but strict in his courtroom. Though he had never been fully convinced Ron was guilty, he was not convinced he was innocent, either. Like most folks in Ada, he had always felt the guy had a loose screw or two. But he was anxious to see Ron, and to make sure his retrial was conducted fairly.
The murder was fifteen years old and still unsolved. Judge Landrith had great sympathy for the Carters and their ordeal. It was time to settle the matter.
On Sunday, July 13, 1997, Ron Williamson left McAlester, never to return. He was driven by two Pontotoc County deputies to Eastern State Hospital in Vinita. The sheriff, Jeff Glase, told a newspaper reporter that the prisoner behaved himself.
"They didn't report any trouble out of him whatsoever," Glase said. "But when you're in shackles, leg irons and a straight jacket, there's not really much you can do to cause a lot of trouble."
It was Ron's fourth admission to Eastern State. He was placed in the "pretrial program," to be evaluated and treated so that he could one day stand trial.
Judge Landrith set a trial date for July 28, but then postponed it pending an evaluation of Ron by the doctors at Eastern State. Though Bill Peterson did not object to the evaluation, he left little doubt as to his opinion of Ron's competency. In a letter to Mark Barrett, he said, "My personal opinion is that he was competent under Oklahoma law and that his disruptions in court were merely a show of anger at the time he was tried and convicted." And, "He functioned reasonably well in jail."
Bill Peterson liked the idea of DNA testing. He had never wavered in his belief that Williamson was the killer, and now it could be proven with real science. He and Mark Barrett swapped letters and quibbled over the details-which lab, who pays for what, when to start the testing- but both agreed that the testing would take place.
Ron was stabilized and doing better. Anyplace, even a mental hospital, was an improvement over McAlester. Eastern State had several units, and he was placed in a heavily secured one, complete with bars on the windows and plenty of razor wire to look at. The rooms were small, old, and not very nice, and the secured unit was overflowing with patients. Ron was lucky to have a room; others slept in beds in the hallways.
He was immediately examined by Dr. Curtis Grundy and found to be incompetent. Ron appreciated the nature of the charges against him but was unable to assist his attorneys. Dr. Grundy wrote to Judge Lan-drith and said that with proper treatment Ron might become competent enough to stand trial.
Two months later, Dr. Grundy evaluated him again. In a detailed, four-page report sent to Judge Landrith, Dr. Grundy determined that Ron (1) was able to appreciate the nature of the charges against him, (2) was able to consult with his lawyer and rationally assist in the preparation of his defense, and (3) was mentally ill and required further treatment- "he should continue to receive psychiatric treatment throughout his trial participation for the purpose of maintaining his competence to stand trial."
Additionally, Dr. Grundy determined that Ron was harmless, saying, "Mr. Williamson does not appear to pose an immediate, significant threat to himself or others should he be released without further inpa-tient treatment. He currently denies experiencing suicidal and homicidal ideation or intent. He has not displayed aggressive behavior towards himself or others during this hospitalization. The current assessment of his dangerousness is based upon his placement in a structured, secure setting and may not be applicable to unstructured environments."
Judge Landrith set the competency hearing for December 10, and Ron was moved back to Ada. He checked into the Pontotoc County jail, said hello to his old pal John Christian, and was placed in his old cell. Annette was soon there to see him, with food, and she found him upbeat, hopeful, and very happy to be "home." He was excited about a new trial and the prospect of proving his innocence. He rambled on incessantly about Ricky Joe Simmons, with Annette constantly asking him to change the subject. He could not. The day before the hearing, he spent four hours with Dr. Sally Church, a psychologist hired by Mark Barrett to testify about his competency. Dr. Church had already met with him twice and reviewed the extensive records of his medical history. She had little doubt that he was incompetent to stand trial.
Ron, though, was determined to prove he was ready for a trial. For nine years he had dreamed of the chance to again confront Bill Peterson and Dennis Smith and Gary Rogers and all the liars and snitches. He'd killed no one, and he was desperate to finally prove it. He liked Mark Barrett, but he was angry that his own lawyer was trying to prove he was crazy.
Ron just wanted a trial.
Judge Landrith scheduled the hearing in a smaller courtroom, down the hall from the main one, where Ron had been convicted. On the morning of the tenth, every seat was taken. Annette was there, as were several reporters. Janet Chesley and Kim Marks were waiting to testify. Barney Ward was absent.
The last time Ron made the short walk from the jail to the courthouse in handcuffs he had been sentenced to die. He was thirty-five then, still a young man with dark hair and a stocky build and nice suit. Nine years later, he made the walk again, a white-haired, ghostlike old man in prison garb and unsteady on his feet. When he walked into the courtroom, Tom Landrith was shocked at his appearance. Ron was very happy to see "Tommy" up there on the bench in a black robe.
When Ron nodded and smiled, the judge noticed that most of his teeth were gone. His hair was streaked yellow from the nicotine on his hands.
Appearing for the state to contest Ron's claims of incompetence was Bill Peterson, who was irritated by the very notion and disdainful of the proceedings. Mark Barrett was assisted by Sara Bonnell, a lawyer from Purcell who would hold the "second seat" in Ron's retrial. Sara was an experienced criminal lawyer, and Mark relied heavily on her. They wasted no time in proving their case. Ron was the first witness and within seconds had everybody thoroughly confused. Mark asked him his name, then they had the following exchange:
Mark: "Mr. Williamson, there's a person other than yourself who you believe committed this crime?"
Ron: "Yes there is. His name is Ricky Joe Simmons of 323 West 3rd Street, at the time of September 24th, 1987, confession to the Ada Police Department. That's the address he listed he was living at. I received verification there were some Simmons living at that address, along with Ricky Joe Simmons. There was a Cody and a Debbie Simmons living there."
Mark: "And you tried to get the word out about Ricky Simmons?"
Ron: "I have told a lot of people about Mr. Simmons. I've wrote to Joe Gifford, I wrote to Tom and Jerry Criswell at the funeral home, and knowing that if they bought a monument here in Ada, they would have bought it from Joe Gifford, because he's the only monument works. And Forget-Me-NotFlorist handled the floral arrangements. I wrote to them. I wrote to some people at the Solo Company, where his former, his former employer. I wrote to the glass plant, his former employer, and to the decedent's former employer."
Mark: "Let's back up a minute. Why was it important for you to write the monument company? "
Ron: "Because I know Joe Gifford. When I was growing up, I mowed his yard, as a kid, with Burt Rose, my next-door neighbor. And knowing that, if Mr. Carter and Ms. Stillwell bought a monument here in Ada, Oklahoma, they bought it from Joe Gifford, because he is the only monument works here. I grew up by Gifford Monument works."
Mark: "Why would you write to Forget-Me-Not Florist?"
Ron: "Because, knowing, if they bought flowers here in Ada, Ms. Stillwell is from Stonewall, Oklahoma, knowing that if they bought flowers here in Ada, they possibly could have bought from Forget-Me-Not Florist."
Mark: "How about the funeral home?"
Ron: "The funeral home is, Criswell Funeral Home is the funeral home, I read from Bill Luker's brief, stating that they are the people responsible for handling the funeral and burial arrangements for the decedent."
Mark: "And it was important for you to let them know Ricky-"
Ron: "Yes, he was an extremely dangerous man, and I asked for some support in getting him arrested."
Mark: "That's because of handling funeral arrangements for Ms. Carter?"
Ron: "That is correct."
Mark: "Did you also write to the manager of the Florida Marlins?"
Ron: "I wrote to the third base coach of the Oakland Athletics, who later became, yes, the manager of the Florida Marlins."
Mark: "And did you ask him to keep some sort of information he gave you under his hat?"
Ron: "No, I told him the whole story about the Del Monte catsup bottle that Simmons said that Dennis Smith, holding up a Del Monte catsup bottle in his right hand on the witness stand, and Ricky Joe Simmons saying he raped the decedent with a catsup bottle, I wrote to Rene and told him that that's the most shocking piece of evidence I've ever seen in the forty-fouryears I've been alive."
Mark: "But you know that the Florida Marlins manager told some other people about it, is that right?"
Ron: "Probably so, because Rene Lachemann is a good friend of mine."
Mark: "So, is there something you've heard that makes you believe this?"
Ron: "Oh, yes, because I used to listen to Monday night football and I listened to the World Series, and I've been listening to some reports on television, and through the media, that that Del Monte catsup bottle has become infamous."
Mark: "Okay, you hear them talking-"
Ron: "Oh, yes, definitely so."
Mark: "On Monday night-"
Ron: "Definitely so."
Mark: "And during the World Series-"
Ron: "It's a cheering pep squad sick ordeal I have to go through, but it's, nonetheless, necessary for me to get Simmons confessed that he did, in fact, rape, rape by instrumentation and rape by forcible sodomy and murder Debra Sue Carter at her home at 10221/2 East 8th Street, December the 8th, 1982."
Mark: "Do you also hear Debra Carter's name mentioned during-"
Ron: "Yes I do."
Mark: "Is this during Monday night football also?"
Ron: "I hear Debra Sue Carter's name continually."
Mark: "You don't have a TV in your cell, do you?"
Ron: "I hear other people's television. I have heard them at Vinita. I had a television on death row. I definitely hear that I am associated with this horrible crime and I am doing my very dead level best to clear my name of this stinking mess."
Mark paused so everyone could catch a breath. Spectators exchanged looks. Others were frowning, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. Judge Landrith was writing something on his legal pad. The lawyers were scribbling, too, though putting sensible words together was not easy at the moment.
From a lawyer's perspective, it was extremely difficult to examine an incompetent witness because no one, including the witness, knew what answers were likely to spew forth. Mark decided to just let him talk.
In attendance for the Carter family was Christy Shepherd, Debbie's niece, who had grown up not far from the Williamsons. She was a licensed health counselor who'd spent years working with severely mentally ill adults. After a few minutes of listening to Ron, she was convinced. Later that day she told her mother and Peggy Stillwell that Ron Williamson was a very sick man.
Also watching, but for different reasons, was Dr. Curtis Grundy, Bill Peterson's chief witness.
The questioning continued, though questions were unnecessary. Ron either ignored them or gave a quick answer before returning to Ricky Joe Simmons and rambling on until the next question cut him off. After ten minutes on the stand, Mark Barrett had heard enough. Annette followed her brother and testified about his unstable thoughts and his obsession with Ricky Joe Simmons.
Janet Chesley testified in detail about her representation of Ron and her efforts to get him moved into the Special Care Unit at McAlester. She, too, described his nonstop ramblings about Ricky Joe Simmons, and said that he was unable to assist with his defense because he talked of nothing else. Ron was improving, in her opinion, and she was hopeful he would one day be able to get his new trial. But that day was still far away.
Kim Marks covered much of the same territory. She had not seen Ron in several months and was pleased with his improved appearance. In vivid detail, she described Ron on H Unit and said she often thought he might die. He was progressing mentally but was still unable to focus on anything but Ricky Joe Simmons. He was not ready for a trial.
Dr. Sally Church was the final witness for Ron. In the long and colorful history of Ron Williamson's court proceedings, she was, incredibly, the first expert to testify about his mental health.
He was bipolar and schizophrenic, two of the most difficult disorders to treat because the patient does not always understand what the medications do. Ron often stopped taking his pills, and that was common with the two disorders. Dr. Church described the effects, treatments, and potential causes of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
During her examination of Ron, the day before at the county jail, he asked her if she heard a television in the distance. She wasn't sure. Ron certainly did, and on the television show they were talking about Debbie Carter and the catsup bottle. It happened like this:
He had written to Rene Lachemann, a former player and coach with Oakland, and told him about Ricky Simmons and Debbie Carter and the catsup bottle. Ron believed that Rene Lachemann for some reason had mentioned this to a couple of sports announcers who began talking about it on the air. The story spread-Monday Night Football, the World Series, and so on-until now it was all over the tube.
"Can't you hear them in there?" Ron yelled at Dr. Church. "They're yelling Catsup!, Catsup!, Catsup!"
She concluded her testimony with the opinion that Ron was unable to assist his attorney and prepare for trial.
During the recess for lunch, Dr. Grundy asked Mark Barrett if he could meet with Ron alone. Mark trusted Dr. Grundy and had no objection. The psychiatrist and the patient/inmate met in the witness room at the jail.
When court convened after lunch, Bill Peterson stood and sheepishly announced:
Yeah, Judge, I visited with our witness [Grundy] over the recess, and I think the State of Oklahoma would be willing to stipulate that... competency is obtainable, but at this particular point in time, Mr. Williamson is not competent.
After watching Ron in court and chatting with him for fifteen minutes during lunch, Dr. Grundy did an about-face and changed his opinion. Ron was simply not ready for a trial.
Judge Landrith ruled Ron to be incompetent and wanted him back in thirty days for another look. As the hearing was winding down, Ron said, "Could I ask a question?"
Judge Landrith: "Yes sir."
Ron: "Tommy, I've known you and I knew your dad, Paul, and I'm telling you in honest truth, I don't know how this Duke Graham and this Jim Smith business, you know, how it correlates to Ricky Joe Simmons. I don't know that. And if that's about my competency, let me get down here within thirty days and let's get Simmons arrested, put him on the witness stand show this videotape and try to get a confession from him as to what he actually did."
Judge Landrith: "I understand what you're saying."
If "Tommy" did, in fact, understand, he was the only one in the courtroom who did so.
Against his wishes, Ron was returned to Eastern State for more observation and treatment. He preferred to remain in Ada to speed things along toward his trial, and he was irritated with his lawyers for wanting him at Vinita. Mark Barrett was desperate to get him out of the Ponto-toc County jail before more snitches appeared on the scene.
Then a dentist at Eastern State examined a sore in the roof of his mouth, did a biopsy, and discovered cancer. The growth was encapsulated and easily removed. The surgery was successful, and the doctor told Ron that had it gone untreated, say at the county jail or at McAlester, the cancer would have spread to his brain.
Ron called Mark and thanked him for the stay at Eastern State. "You saved my life," Ron said, and they were friends again.
In 1995, the state of Oklahoma drew a blood sample from every prison inmate, began analyzing them, and entered the results into its new DNA data bank.
The evidence from the Carter investigation was still locked away at the OSBI lab in
Oklahoma City. The blood, fingerprints, semen, and hair samples from the crime scene, along with the numerous prints and blood, hair, and saliva samples taken from the witnesses and suspects, were all in storage.
The fact that the state had possession of everything did not comfort Dennis Fritz. He didn't trust Bill Peterson and the Ada police, and he certainly didn't trust their cohorts at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. Hell, Gary Rogers was an OSBI agent.
Fritz waited. Throughout 1998, he corresponded with the Innocence Project, tried to be patient, and waited. Ten years in prison had taught him patience and perseverance, and he had experienced the cruelty of false hope.
A letter from Ron helped. It was a rambling, seven-page hello on Eastern State letterhead, and Dennis chuckled as he read it. His old friend had not lost his wit or his fight. Ricky Joe Simmons was still loose, and, damn it, Ron intended to nail him.
To keep his own sanity, Dennis stayed in the law library, poring over cases. He made a hopeful discovery-his habeas corpus appeal had been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. Pontotoc County was in the Eastern District. He compared notes with the other law clerks and the combined wisdom was that the Western District did not have jurisdiction over him. He rewrote his petition and brief, and re-filed in the proper court. It was a long shot, but it energized him and gave him another fight.
In January 1999, he talked by phone to Barry Scheck. Scheck was at war on many fronts; the Innocence Project was swamped with wrongful conviction cases. Dennis expressed his concern with the state having control of all the evidence, and Barry explained that that was usually the case. Relax, he said, nothing will happen to the samples. He knew how to protect the evidence from tampering.
Scheck's fascination with Dennis's case was simple: the police had failed to investigate the last man seen with the victim. It was an enormous red flag, and it was all Scheck needed to take the case.
On January 26 and 27, 1999, at a company called Laboratory Corporation of America (LabCorp), near Raleigh, North Carolina, the semen samples from the crime scene the torn panties, the bedsheets, and the vaginal swabs-were tested against the DNA profiles of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz. A DNA expert from California, Brian Wraxall, had been hired by the attorneys for Ron and Dennis to monitor the testing.
Two days later, Judge Landrith delivered the news that Mark Barrett and many others had been dreaming of. The results of the DNA tests had been analyzed and confirmed at LabCorp, and the semen from the crime scene excluded Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz.
As always, Annette was in close contact with Mark Barrett and knew the testing was under way, somewhere. She was at home when the phone rang. It was Mark, and his first words were "Annette, Ron is innocent." Her knees buckled and she almost fainted. "Are you sure, Mark?"
"Ron is innocent," he said again. "We just got the lab results."
She couldn't talk for crying and promised to call him back later. She sat down, and for a long time she wept and she prayed. She thanked God over and over for his goodness. Her Christian faith had sustained her through the nightmare of Ron's ordeal, and now the Lord had answered her prayers. She hummed a few hymns, cried some more, then began calling family and friends. Renee's reaction was almost identical.
They made the four-hour drive to Vinita the next day. Waiting there were Mark Barrett and Sara Bonnell-a little celebration was in order. As Ron was brought into the visitors' room, Dr. Curtis Grundy happened by and was invited to hear the good news. Ron was his patient, and they had developed a close relationship. After eighteen months at Vinita, Ron was stable, making slow progress, and putting on weight.
"We have some great news," Mark said, addressing his client. "The lab results are back. The DNA proves you and Dennis are innocent."
Ron was instantly overcome with emotion and reached for his sisters. They hugged and wept, and then instinctively broke into "I'll Fly Away," a popular gospel hymn they had learned as children.
Mark Barrett immediately filed a motion to dismiss the charges and turn Ron loose, and Judge Landrith was anxious to address the issue. Bill Peterson objected and wanted further testing on the hair. A hearing was scheduled for February 3.
Bill Peterson opposed the motion, but he could not do so quietly. Before the hearing, he was quoted in the Ada Evening News as saying: "DNA testing of the hair samples, which was not available in 1982, will prove they were responsible for Carter's murder."
The statement rattled Mark Barrett and Barry Scheck. If Peterson was cocky enough to make such public claims at such a late hour, was it possible that he knew something they didn't? Did he have access to the hair taken from the crime scene? Could the samples be switched?
There were no empty seats in the main courtroom on February 3. Ann Kelley, a reporter for the Ada Evening News, was fascinated by the case and was covering it thoroughly.
Her front-page reports were being widely read, and when Judge Landrith settled behind his bench, the room was crowded with policemen, courthouse employees, family members, and local lawyers.
Barney was there, seeing nothing but hearing more than anyone. He was thick-skinned and had learned to live with Judge Seay's opinion from 1995. He would never agree with it, but he couldn't change it. Barney had always believed that his client had been framed by the police and Peterson, and it was wonderful watching their flimsy case unravel in the spotlight.
The lawyers argued for forty-five minutes, then Judge Landrith wisely decided to complete the testing of the hair before making a final decision. Do it fast, he told the lawyers.
To his credit, Bill Peterson promised, on the record and in open court, to agree to a dismissal if Williamson and Fritz were excluded by DNA testing of the crime scene hair.
On February 10, 1999, Mark Barrett and Sara Bonnell drove to the Lexington Correctional Center to see Glen Gore, in what was supposedly a routine interview. Though Ron's retrial had not been scheduled, they were preparing for it anyway. Gore surprised them by saying he had been expecting a visit. He was reading the newspapers, keeping up with events. He had read about Judge Seay's opinion back in 1995 and knew that another trial was somewhere in the future. They chatted for a while about that possibility, and the conversation shifted to Bill Peterson, a man Gore despised because he put him in prison for forty years.
Barrett asked Gore why he testified against Williamson and Fritz.
It was all Peterson, he said. Peterson threatened him, said he'd go after him if he didn't help nail Williamson and Fritz. "Would you be willing to take a polygraph on this?" Mark asked.
Gore said he had no problem with a polygraph, and added that he had offered to take one for the police, but it never happened.
The lawyers asked Gore if he would give them a saliva sample for DNA, and he said it wasn't necessary. The state already had his DNA- all prisoners were required to submit samples. As they talked about DNA, Mark Barrett told Gore that Fritz and Williamson had been tested. Gore already knew this.
"Could your DNA be on her?" Barrett asked.
Probably, Gore said, because he had danced with her five times that night. Dancing wouldn't do it, Mark said, and went on to explain the basics of leaving a DNA trail. Blood, saliva, hair, sweat, semen. "They have DNA from the semen," Mark said. Gore's expression changed dramatically, and he was obviously bothered by this information. He called time and left to go find his legal adviser. He returned with Reuben, a jailhouse lawyer. While he was away, Sara Bonnell asked a guard for a Q tip.
"Glen, would you give a saliva sample?" Sara asked, holding the Q-tip. Gore grabbed the Q-tip, snapped it in two, cleaned both ears, then dropped the two halves into his shirt pocket.
"Did you have sex with her?" Mark asked. Gore wouldn't respond.
"Are you saying you never had sex with her?" Mark asked again. "I'm not saying that."
"If you did, that semen is going to match up to your DNA." "I didn't do it," Gore said. "I can't help you."
He and Reuben stood, and the interview was over. As they were leaving, Mark Barrett asked Gore if they could meet again. Sure, said Gore, but it might be better if they met at his job site.
Job site? Mark thought he was serving a forty-year prison sentence.
Gore explained that during the day he worked in Purcell, Sara Bonnell's hometown, in the Public Works Department. Catch him over there, and they could have a longer talk.
Mark and Sara agreed, though both were taken aback by Gore's outside employment.
That afternoon Mark called Mary Long, who was then in charge of the DNA-testing section of the OSBI, and suggested that they find Gore's DNA in the prison data bank and compare it with the semen samples from the crime scene. She agreed to do so.
Dennis Fritz was locked in his cell for the 4:15 p.m. count. He heard the familiar voice of a prisoner counselor in the hall, beyond his metal door. The voice yelled, "Hey, Fritz, you're a free man!" Then something about "DNA."
Dennis couldn't get out of his cell, and the counselor disappeared. His cell mate heard it, too, and they spent the rest of the night talking about what it meant.
It was too late to call New York. Dennis suffered through the night, slept little, and tried unsuccessfully to throttle his excitement. When he reached the Innocence Project early the next morning, the news was confirmed. DNA testing had excluded Dennis and Ron from the semen found at the crime scene.
Dennis was euphoric. Almost twelve years after he was arrested, the truth was finally known. The proof was ironclad and irrefutable. He would be vindicated and exonerated and set free. He called his mother, and she was overcome with emotion. He called his daughter, Elizabeth, now twenty-five years old, and they celebrated. They had not seen each other in twelve years, and they talked about how sweet the reunion would be.
To safeguard the crime scene hair and also the samples given by Fritz and Williamson, Mark Barrett arranged for an expert to examine the hair and to microscopically photograph it with an infrared camera.
Less than three weeks after the hearing on the motion to dismiss, LabCorp completed the first-stage testing and sent back an inconclusive report. Mark Barrett and Sara Bonnell drove to Ada for a meeting in the chambers of the judge. Tom Landrith was anxious to get the answers that only DNA could provide.
Because of the complexities of DNA testing, various labs were being used to test different hairs. And because of the distrust between the prosecution and the defense, different labs were necessary. A total of five labs were eventually involved in the case.
The lawyers discussed this with Judge Landrith, and again he pressed them to do it as fast as possible.
After the hearing, Mark and Sara walked downstairs in the courthouse to Bill Peterson's office. In correspondence and in hearings, he was growing increasingly hostile. Perhaps they could thaw things a bit with a friendly visit.
Instead, they heard a tirade. Peterson was still convinced Ron Williamson had raped and murdered Debbie Carter, and his evidence had not changed. Forget the DNA. Forget the experts from the OSBI. Williamson was a bad guy who'd raped women in Tulsa and hung out in bars and roamed the streets with his guitar and lived close to Debbie Carter. Peterson vehemently believed that Gary Allen, Fritz's neighbor, had actually seen Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz in the yard the night of the murder washing off blood with a water hose while laughing and cursing. They had to be guilty! Peterson ranted on and on, working harder to reassure himself than to convince Mark and Sara.
They were dumbfounded. The man was thoroughly incapable of admitting a mistake or grasping the reality of the situation.
The month of March seemed like a year for Dennis Fritz. The euphoria vanished, and he struggled to get through each day. He was obsessed with the possibility of hair samples being switched by Peterson or someone at the OSBI. With the semen issue put to rest, the state would be desperate to salvage its case with the only evidence it had left. If he and Ron were cleared by DNA testing of the hair, then they would walk and the bogus prosecution would be exposed. Reputations were on the line.
Everything was out of his control, and Dennis was overcome with stress. He feared a heart attack and visited the prison clinic, complaining of heart palpitations. The pills they gave him did little to help.
The days dragged on, then April arrived.
The excitement faded for Ron, too. The extreme euphoria crashed into another round of severe depression and anxiety, and he became suicidal. He called Mark Barrett often, and his lawyer kept reassuring him. Mark accepted every call, and when he wasn't in the office, he made sure someone there talked to the client.
Ron, like Dennis, was terrified of the authorities cooking the test results. Both were in prison because of the state's experts, people who still had access to the evidence. It wasn't difficult to imagine a scenario in which the hair could be compromised in an effort to protect people and cover up an injustice. Ron had made no secret of his desire to sue everybody in sight once he was set free. People in higher places had to be nervous.
Ron called as often as he was permitted, usually once a day. He was paranoid and offered all sorts of nightmarish plots.
At one point, Mark Barrett did something he had never done before, and would probably never do again. He guaranteed Ron that he would get him out of prison. If the DNA fell through, then they would go to trial, and Mark guaranteed an acquittal.
Comforting words from an experienced lawyer, and Ron was calm for a few days. "Hair Samples Don't Match" was the headline of the Sunday edition of the Ada paper on April 11. Ann Kelley reported that LabCorp had tested fourteen of seventeen hairs taken from the crime scene and they "were in no way consistent with Fritz or Williamson's DNA makeup."
Bill Peterson said:
At this point we don't know who the hairs belong to. We haven't tested them against anybody but Fritz and Williamson. There was no question in my mind when we started the whole DNA process that these two men were guilty. I wanted it [physical evidence] sent off for the purpose of getting these two guys. When we got the results on the semen samples, I was so surprised my jaw dropped to the floor.
The final report was due from the lab the following Wednesday, April 14. Judge Landrith scheduled a hearing for April 15, and there was speculation that the two men might be set free. Fritz and Williamson would both be in court on the fifteenth.
And Barry Scheck was coming to town! Scheck's fame was growing enormously as the Innocence Project pulled off one DNA exoneration after another, and when word circulated that he would be in Ada for yet another one, the media circus began. State and national news companies called Mark Barrett, Judge Landrith, Bill Peterson, the Innocence Project, the Carter family, all the major players. Excitement built quickly. Would Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz really walk free on Thursday?
Dennis Fritz had not heard the results of the hair tests. On Tuesday, April 13, he was in his cell when a guard appeared from nowhere and barked, "Pack your shit. You're leaving."
Dennis knew he was going back to Ada, hopefully for his release. He packed quickly, said good-bye to a couple of friends, and hurried away. There to drive him back to Ada was none other than John Christian, a familiar face from the Pontotoc County jail.
Twelve years in jail and prison had taught Dennis to treasure his privacy and his freedom, and to appreciate the little things, like open spaces and forests and flowers. Spring was everywhere, and as he headed back to Ada, he smiled through the window at the farms and rolling hills and countryside.
His thoughts were random. He did not know of the latest test results, nor was he certain why he was headed back to Ada. There was a chance he would be released, and there was also the chance that a last-minute hitch would derail things. Twelve years earlier, he'd almost been released during his preliminary hearing when Judge Miller realized the state had so little proof. Then the cops and Peterson produced James Harjo, and Dennis went to trial, then to prison.
He thought of Elizabeth and how wonderful it would be to see and hold her. He couldn't wait to get out of Oklahoma. Then he was scared again. He was so close to freedom, yet he was still wearing handcuffs and headed for a jail.
Ann Kelley and a photographer were waiting for him. He smiled as he entered the jail and was eager to talk to the reporter. "This case should never have been prosecuted," he said for the newspaper. "The evidence they had against me was insufficient and if the police had done an adequate investigation of all the suspects this may never have happened." He explained the problems with the indigent defense system. "When you don't have any money to defend yourself, you're at the mercy of the judicial system. Once in the system, it's almost impossible to get out, even if you are innocent."
He spent a quiet night in his old haunt, dreaming of freedom.
The quietness of the jail was disrupted the next day, April 14, when Ron Williamson arrived from Vinita, wearing prison stripes and grinning at the cameras. The word was out that they would be released the following day, and the story had caught the attention of the national press.
Ron and Dennis had not seen each other in eleven years. Each had written to the other only once, but when they were reunited, they hugged and laughed and tried to grasp the reality of where they were and what was happening. The lawyers arrived, and they talked to them for an hour. NBC's Dateline was there with a camera recording everything. Jim Dwyer with the New York Daily News had arrived with Barry Scheck.
They were packed in the small interview room on the east side of the jail, facing the courthouse. At one point, Ron stretched out on the floor, looked through the glass door, and rested his head in his hand. Finally someone asked, "Hey, Ron, what are you doing?"
"Waiting on Peterson," he said.
The courthouse lawn was crawling with reporters and cameras. One happened to catch Bill Peterson, who agreed to an interview. When Ron saw the prosecutor in front of the courthouse, he yelled at the door, "You fat rascal! We beat you, Peterson!"
Dennis's mother and daughter surprised him at the jail. Though he and Elizabeth had maintained an active correspondence, and she had sent him many photos, he was unprepared for what he saw. She was a beautiful, elegant, very mature young lady of twenty-five, and he wept uncontrollably as he hugged her.
There were many tears at the jail that afternoon.
Ron and Dennis were placed in separate cells, lest they start killing again. Sheriff Glase explained, "I'm going to keep them apart. I just don't feel right putting two convicted murderers in the same cell together- and until the judge says so, that's what they are."
Their cells were side by side, and so they talked. Dennis's cell mate had a small television, and from news reports he heard firsthand that they would be released the following day. Dennis relayed all this to Ron.
To no one's surprise, Terri Holland was back in jail, another layover in her astonishing career as a petty criminal. She and Ron exchanged words, but nothing particularly unpleasant. As the night wore one, Ron lapsed into his old habits. He began yelling about his freedom and injustices, shouting obscenities at the female inmates, and talking loudly to God.