Page 15 of The Innocent Man

The exonerations of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz brought national attention to Ada. By daybreak on April 15, the courthouse was surrounded by news vans, satellite trucks, photographers, cameramen, and reporters. The townsfolk drifted over, curious at the commotion and anxious to see more. So much jockeying had gone on for seats in the courtroom that Judge Landrith was forced to improvise a lottery system for the reporters and a one-line live feed out of his office window for the news trucks.

A collection of cameras was waiting outside the jail, and when the two defendants emerged, they were surrounded. Ron was wearing a coat and tie, dress shirt, and slacks that Annette had hurriedly bought for him, and he had new shoes that were too small and killing his feet. Dennis's mother had brought him a suit, but he preferred the street clothes he'd been allowed to wear during his last years in prison. They quickly made their final walk in handcuffs, smiling and bantering with the reporters.

Annette and Renee arrived early and took their usual seats, front row behind the defense table. They held hands and prayed, cried, and managed a laugh or two. It was too early to celebrate. They were joined by their children, other relatives, and some friends. Wanda and Elizabeth Fritz sat nearby, also holding hands and whispering excitedly. The courtroom filled up. The Carter family sat across the aisle, once more dragged into court to suffer through another hearing as the state floundered in its efforts to solve their crime and find justice. Seventeen years after Debbie's murder, and her first two accused and convicted killers were about to walk.

The seats were soon filled, and the crowd began stacking up along the walls. Judge Landrith had agreed to allow cameras, and he herded the photographers and reporters into the jury box, where folding chairs were brought in and wedged against each other. Cops and deputies were everywhere. Security was tight. There had been anonymous phone calls and threats against Ron and Dennis. The courtroom was packed and tension was high.

Lots of cops were present, though Dennis Smith and Gary Rogers were somewhere else. The lawyers arrived-Mark, Sara, and Barry Scheck for the defendants, Bill Peterson, Nancy Shew, and Chris Ross for the state. There were smiles and handshakes. The state was "joining" in the motion to dismiss, to set the boys free. This was a joint effort to right a wrong, a rare example of the community coming together at a crucial hour to properly address an injustice. One big happy family. Everyone should be congratulated and take pride in the system that was working so beautifully.

Ron and Dennis were brought in, and their handcuffs were removed for the last time. They sat behind their lawyers, a few feet away from their families. Ron stared straight ahead and saw little. Dennis, though, looked at the crowd and saw glum, hard faces. Most of those present did not seem too happy with the prospect of their release.

Judge Landrith assumed the bench, welcomed everyone, and quickly got down to business. He asked Peterson to call his first witness. Mary Long, now the head of the DNA unit at the OSBI, took the stand and began with an overview of the testing process. She talked about the different labs that had been used to analyze the hair and semen from the crime scene and the samples from the suspects.

Ron and Dennis began to sweat. They had thought the hearing would take only a few minutes, time enough for Judge Landrith to dismiss the charges and send them home. As the minutes crept by, they began to worry. Ron began to fidget and grumble, "What's going on?" Sara Bonnell scribbled notes to assure him things were fine.

Dennis was a nervous wreck. Where was the testimony leading? Could there be another surprise? Every trip to that courtroom had been a nightmare. Sitting in it now evoked harrowing memories of lying witnesses and stone-faced jurors and Peterson demanding the death penalty. Dennis made the mistake of again glancing around the courtroom, and again did not see many supporters.

Mary Long turned to the important material. Seventeen hairs taken from the crime scene were tested-thirteen pubic, four scalp. Ten of the hairs were found on the bed or in the bedding. Two came from the torn panties, three from the washcloth in the victim's mouth, and two from under her body.

Only four of the seventeen could be matched with a DNA profile. Two belonged to Debbie, and none came from Ron or Dennis. Zero.

Long then testified that the semen samples taken from the bedding, the torn panties, and the victim had been tested earlier, and, of course, Ron and Dennis had been excluded. She was then excused from the witness stand.

In 1988, Melvin Hett testified that of the seventeen hairs, thirteen were "microscopically consistent" with the hair of Dennis, and four with Ron's samples. There was even a "match." Also, in his third and final report, filed after Dennis's trial had started, Hett excluded Glen Gore from any of the hair. His expert testimony was the only direct "credible" proof the state offered against both Ron and Dennis, and had much to do with their convictions.

DNA testing revealed that one scalp hair found under the body and one pubic hair found in the bedding had been left behind by Glen Gore. Also, the semen recovered by a vaginal swab during the autopsy was tested. Its source was Glen Gore.

Judge Landrith knew this but had kept it confidential until the hearing. With his approval, Bill Peterson announced the Gore findings to a shocked courtroom.

Peterson said, "Your Honor, this is a very trying time for the criminal justice system. This murder happened in 1982, it was tried in 1988. At that particular time we had evidence that was presented to a jury that convicted Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson by evidence that was, in my opinion, at that particular time, overwhelming."

Without refreshing memories as to what, exactly, the overwhelming proof had been eleven years earlier, he rambled on about how DNA now contradicted much of what he had once believed. Based on the evidence he had left, he could not prosecute the two defendants. He asked that the motion to dismiss be granted, then sat down.

At no time did Peterson offer any conciliatory comments, or words of regret, or admissions of errors made, or even an apology.

At the least, Ron and Dennis were expecting an apology. Twelve years of their lives had been stolen by malfeasance, human error, and arrogance. The injustice they had endured could easily have been avoided, and the state owed them something as simple as an apology.

It would never happen, and it became an open sore that never healed.

Judge Landrith made a few comments about the injustice of it all, then asked Ron and Dennis to stand. He announced that all charges were thereby dismissed. They were free men. Free to go. There was applause and cheering from a few of the spectators; most, though, were not in the mood to celebrate. Annette and Renee hugged their children and relatives and had another good cry.

Ron bolted from the defense table, past the jury box, out a side door, down the stairs to the front steps of the courthouse, where he paused and filled his lungs with cool air. Then he lit a cigarette, the first of a million in the free world, and waved it jubilantly at a camera. The photo was printed in dozens of newspapers.

A few minutes later he was back. He and Dennis, their families and lawyers, huddled in the courtroom and posed for photos and answered questions from a horde of reporters. Mark Barrett had called Greg Wil-hoit and asked him to fly back to Oklahoma for the big day. When Ron saw Greg, they embraced like the brothers they were.

"How do you feel, Mr. Williamson?" a reporter asked.

"About what?" Ron shot back, then said, "I feel like my feet are killing me. These shoes are too small." The questions went on for an hour, even though a press conference was planned for later.

Peggy Stillwell was helped from the courtroom by her daughters and sisters. She was overwhelmed and in shock; the family had not been warned of the news of Glen Gore. They were back at the murder scene now, waiting for another trial, no closer to justice. And they were confused; most of the family still believed Fritz and Williamson were guilty, but how did Gore figure in?

Ron and Dennis finally began their exit, every step of it duly preserved and recorded. The mob crept down the stairs and out the front door. They paused for a second, free men now, and soaked in the sun and chilly air.

They were liberated, free, exonerated, yet no one had offered an apology, an explanation, or even a dime in compensationnot a shred of aid of any type.

***

It was time for lunch. Ron's favorite place was Bob's Barbecue, north of town. Annette called ahead and reserved several tables; several would be needed because the entourage was growing by the minute.

Though he had only a few teeth left, and though it would otherwise have been difficult to eat with so many cameras in his face, Ron devoured a plateful of pork ribs and wanted more. Never one to savor his food, he did manage to savor the moment. He was polite to everyone, thanked all the strangers who stopped by to encourage him, hugged those who wanted a hug, chatted with every reporter who wanted a story.

He and Dennis couldn't stop smiling, even with mouths full of barbecue.

The day before, Jim Dwyer, a reporter for the New York Daily News, and Alexandra Pelosi of NBC's Dateline, drove to Purcell to find Glen Gore and ask him some questions. Gore knew things were heating up over in Ada and that he was rapidly becoming the prime suspect. But, remarkably, the prison staff did not.

Gore heard that some out-of-towners were looking for him, and assumed they were lawyers or law enforcement types, people he'd rather avoid. Around noon, he walked away from his job cleaning ditches in Purcell and escaped. He found some woods and walked several miles, then stumbled upon a highway and hitchhiked in the general direction of Ada.

When Ron and Dennis heard of Gore's escape, they howled with laughter. He must be guilty.

After a long lunch, the Fritz-Williamson group drove to the lodge in Wintersmith Park in Ada for a press conference. Joined by their lawyers, Ron and Dennis sat behind a long table and faced the cameras. Scheck talked about the Innocence Project and its work to free those wrongly convicted. Mark Barrett was asked how the injustice occurred in the first place, and he gave a long history of the misguided prosecution-the five-year delay, the lazy and suspicious police work, the snitches, the junk science. Most of the questions were directed at the two brand-new ex-onerees. Dennis said he planned to leave Oklahoma, go back to Kansas City, and spend as much time as possible with Elizabeth, and in due course he would figure out the rest of his life. Ron had no immediate plans, except to get out of Ada.

Their panel was joined by Greg Wilhoit and Tim Durham, another Oklahoma exoneree from Tulsa. Tim spent four years in prison for a rape he did not commit before the Innocence Project secured his release with DNA testing.

At the federal courthouse in Muskogee, Jim Payne, Vicky Hildebrand, and Gail Seward quietly suppressed their deep satisfaction. There was no celebration-their work on the Williamson matter was now four years removed, and they were knee-deep in other cases-but they nonetheless paused to savor the moment. Long before DNA erased the mysteries, they had found the truth the old way with brains and sweat and, in doing so, had saved the life of an innocent man.

Judge Seay wasn't smug, either. The vindication was sweet, but he was much too busy with other matters. He had simply done his job, that was all. Though every other judge along the way had failed Ron Williamson, Frank Seay understood the system and knew its flaws. The truth was often hard to find, but he was willing to search for it and he knew where to look.

Mark Barrett had asked Annette to find a place for the press conference, and perhaps a little reception, something nice in the way of a homecoming for Ron and Dennis. She knew just the place-the fellowship hall of her church, the same church in which Ronnie grew up, the same church where she had played both the piano and the organ for the past forty years.

The day before, she had called her pastor to ask permission and arrange the details. He hesitated, stuttered a bit, then finally said he needed to poll the elders. Annette smelled trouble and headed for the church. When she arrived, the pastor said that he had called the elders, and it was their opinion, and his as well, that the church should be off-limits for such an event. Annette was stunned and asked why.

There could be violence, he explained. There were already reports of threats against Ron and Dennis, and things might get out of control. The town was buzzing about the release, with most folks unhappy with it. There were some tough guys on the Carter side, and, well, it just wouldn't work.

"But this church has been praying for Ronnie for twelve years," she reminded him.

Yes, indeed, and we will continue to do so, he said. But there are a lot of people who still think he's guilty. It's too controversial. The church could be tainted. The answer is no. Annette became emotional and ran from his office. He tried to console her, but she would have none of it.

She left and called Renee. Within minutes Gary Simmons was driving to Ada, some three hours from their home near Dallas. Gary drove straight to the church and confronted the pastor, who held his ground. They argued for a long time, but resolved nothing. The church was standing firm; it was simply too risky.

"Ron will be here Sunday morning," Gary said. "Will you recognize him?" "No," the pastor said.

The celebration resumed at Annette's house where dinner was served and friends filtered in and out. After the dishes were done, everyone gathered in the sunroom, where an oldfashioned gospel sing-along erupted. Barry Scheck, a Jewish guy from New York, heard music he'd never heard before, and gamely tried to sing along. Mark Barrett was there; it was a proud and remarkable moment for him, and he didn't want to leave. Sara Bonnell, Janet Chesley, and Kim Marks all sang along. Greg Wilhoit and his sister Nancy were there. The Fritz family-Dennis, Elizabeth, and Wanda-sat close together and joined in the fun.

"That night everyone stayed around for the celebration party at Annette's house," Renee said. "There was lots of food, singing, laughter. Annette was playing the piano, Ronnie playing the guitar, and the rest of us joining and singing a variety of songs. Everyone was singing, clapping, having such a good time. Then, at ten o'clock, there was silence as the news came on the television. We were all sitting in the sunroom, wall-to-wall people, waiting to hear the news we had longed to hear for so many years announcing to the town that my little brother, Ronald Keith Williamson, was not only free but innocent!

Although it was such a joyous occasion and we were all so relieved, we could see the sickness in Ronnie's eyes from the many years of being tormented and abused."

They celebrated again at the TV news report. When it was over, Mark Barrett and Barry Scheck and some of the crowd said their good nights. Tomorrow would be a very long day.

Later in the evening, the phone rang and Annette answered it. An anonymous caller said the Ku Klux Klan was in the area and looking for Ronnie. One of the great rumors of the day was that someone on the Carter side had bought a contract for a hit on Ron and Dennis, and that the KKK was now in the business of hired killings. There were remnants of Klan activity in southeastern Oklahoma, but it had been decades since the group had been suspected of murder. They normally didn't target white people, but in the heat of the moment the Klan was considered the nearest organized gang that might be able to pull off such a hit.

The call was chilling nonetheless, and Annette whispered the message to Renee and Gary. They decided to take the threat seriously but try to keep it from Ronnie.

"The happiest night of our lives soon became the most terrifying night of our lives,"

Renee said. "We decided to call the Ada police. They informed us they would be sending no one and there was nothing they could do unless something happened. How could we be so naive to think they would protect us? In a panic, we all ran through the house, closing blinds, locking windows and doors. It was obvious no one was going to sleep because everyone's nerves were on edge. Our son-in-law was worried about his wife and new baby being in such danger. We gathered around and prayed and asked the Lord to calm our nerves and for the angels to surround our house and protect us. We all made it through the night unharmed. The Lord once again honored our prayers. Looking back on the night it's almost humorous to think our first thought was to call the Ada police."

Ann Kelley of the Ada Evening News had a full day covering the events. That night she received a call from Chris Ross, assistant district attorney. Ross was upset and complained that the prosecutors and police were being vilified.

No one was telling their side of the story.

Early the next morning, at the beginning of their first full day of freedom, Ron and Dennis, along with their lawyers, Mark Barrett and Barry Scheck, drove to the local Holiday Inn, where an NBC camera crew was setting up. They appeared live on the Today show, with Matt Lauer doing the interview.

The story was gaining momentum, and most of the reporters were still in Ada, looking for anyone remotely connected to the case or the people involved in it. The Gore escape was a wonderful subplot.

The group-exonerees, families, lawyers-drove to Norman and stopped at the offices of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System for another party. Ron said a few words and thanked those who had worked so hard to protect him and eventually free him.

Afterward, they hurried to Oklahoma City to film a segment of Inside Edition, and then one for a show called Burden of Proof.

Lawyers Scheck and Barrett were trying to arrange a meeting with the governor and top legislators to lobby for legislation that would facilitate DNA testing and provide compensation for those wrongfully convicted. The group went to the state capitol to shake hands and twist arms and hold another press conference. The timing was perfect; they had the national media following them. The governor was working hard and too busy, so he sent forth a top aide, a creative type who seized upon the idea of having Ron and Dennis meet with the members of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. It was unclear what this meeting was expected to produce, but resentment was certainly a possibility. It was Friday afternoon, though, and the judges were likewise hard at work. Only one ventured out of her chambers to say hello, and she was harmless. She had not been on the court when it reviewed and affirmed the convictions of Fritz and Williamson. Barry Scheck left town and headed back to New York. Mark stayed in Norman, his home, and Sara drove to Purcell. There was a lull in the frenzy, and everybody needed a break. Dennis and his mother stayed in Oklahoma City at Elizabeth 's home.

Riding back to Ada, with Annette behind the wheel, Ron sat in the front seat for a change. No handcuffs. No prison stripes. No armed deputy watching him. He soaked in the countryside, the farms and scattered oil rigs and gentle rolling hills of southeast Oklahoma.

He couldn't wait to leave.

"It was almost like we had to reacquaint ourselves with him since he'd been out of our lives for so long," Renee said. "The next day after he was released we had such a good day with him. I told him to bear with us, that we had a lot of questions and were very curious about what his life had been like on death row. He was very sweet about it and graciously answered our questions for a few hours. One of the questions I asked him was, 'What are all those scars on your arms?' He said, 'I would be so depressed that I would sit and cut myself.' We asked him what his cell was like, was the food edible, etcetera. But after many questions he looked at all of us and said, 'I'd rather not talk about it anymore.

Let's talk about something else.' And we honored his wishes. He would sit outside on the patio at Annette's house and sing and play his guitar. Sometimes we could hear him from inside, and it was all I could do to hold back the tears listening to him and thinking about what he had been through. He would go to the refrigerator and just stand there with the door open looking at what he might want to eat. He was amazed at all the food in the house and especially knowing he could eat any and all he wanted. He stood at the kitchen window in awe and commented about all the nice cars we were driving, some he had never heard of. He commented one day while riding in the car how different it was to see people walking and running and going about their busy everyday lives."

Ron was excited about returning to church. Annette had not told him about the incident with the pastor, nor would she ever. Mark Barrett and Sara Bonnell were invited; Ron wanted them there with him. The entire Williamson entourage arrived for the Sunday worship hour in a rush and stormed down to the very front row. Annette was behind the organ, as always, and when she began the first rather rowdy hymn Ron jumped to his feet, clapping and singing and smiling, truly filled with the spirit.

During the announcements, the pastor made no mention of Ron's return, but during the morning prayer he did manage to say that God loved everyone, even Ronnie.

Annette and Renee boiled with anger.

A Pentecostal worship service is not for the timid, and as the music cranked up and the choir began rocking and the congregation got loud, a handful of church members made their way over to Ron for a hello, a hug, a welcome back. Damned few. The rest of the good Christian folks glared at the murderer in their midst.

Annette left the church that Sunday, never to return.

The Sunday edition of the Ada newspaper ran a front-page story with the headline "Prosecutor Defends His Work on High Profile Case." There was a lawyerly photo of Bill Peterson, behind a podium, in court, in action.

For obvious reasons, he was not doing too well in the aftermath of the exonerations and felt compelled to share his resentment with the people of Ada. He was not getting his fair share of the credit for protecting Ron and Dennis, and the lengthy story, by Ann Kelley, was nothing but an embarrassing tantrum by a badly beaten prosecutor who should have avoided reporters.

It began:

Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson claims Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson's defense attorneys are wrongly taking credit for the DNA tests that freed their clients from prison.

As Ann Kelley fed him all the rope he needed to hang himself, Peterson recalled in detail the history of the DNA testing in the Carter case. At every possible opportunity, he took cheap shots at Mark Barrett and Barry Scheck while never missing a chance to pat himself on the back. DNA testing was his idea!

He managed to avoid the obvious. Not once did he admit that he wanted DNA testing so he could nail Ron and Dennis in their coffins. He was so convinced of their guilt that he happily went along with the testing. Now that the test results had gone the other way, he was demanding credit for being such a fair guy.

The bratlike finger-pointing went on for paragraphs. He dropped vague, sinister hints about other suspects and gathering more evidence. The story read:

He [Peterson] said if new evidence is found linking Fritz and Williamson to Carter's murder, double jeopardy would not apply and they could be tried again.

Peterson said the investigation into Carter's murder has been reopened for some time and Glen Gore is not the only suspect.

The story ended with two appalling quotations from Peterson. The first was: I did the right thing in 1988 when I tried them. By recommending their convictions be dismissed, I did what was legally, morally, and ethically the right thing to do with the evidence I now have against them.

Left unsaid, of course, was the fact that his highly ethical and utterly moral consent to the dismissal came almost five years after Ron was almost executed, and four years after Peterson publicly rebuked Judge Seay for ordering a new trial. By seizing the high ethical ground at the eleventh hour, Peterson lamely helped to ensure that Ron and Dennis spent only twelve years in prison as innocent men.

The most reprehensible part of the story was the next quotation. It was also highlighted and placed in the center of the front page. Peterson said:

Innocent has never crossed my lips in regards to Williamson and Fritz. This doesn't prove their innocence. It just means I can't prosecute them with the evidence I now have. Ron and Dennis were emotional and shaky enough after only four days of freedom, and the story terrified them. Why would Peterson want to try them again? He had convicted them once, and they had no doubt he could do it again.

New evidence, old evidence, zero evidence. It didn't matter. They'd just suffered twelve years behind bars for killing no one. But in Ponto-toc County, evidence was not a factor. The story infuriated Mark Barrett and Barry Scheck, and both drafted lengthy rebuttals to fire off to the paper. But they wisely waited, and after a few days realized few people were listening to Peterson.

On Sunday afternoon, Ron and Dennis and their supporters drove to Norman, at the request of Mark Barrett. With fortuitous timing, Amnesty International was throwing its annual outdoor rock concert to raise money. There was a nice crowd gathered at an outdoor amphitheater. The weather was warm and sunny.

Between songs, Mark Barrett spoke, then introduced Ron, Dennis, Greg, and Tim Durham. Each took a few minutes and shared his experiences. Though they were nervous and not accustomed to public speaking, they found the courage and spoke from their hearts. The audience adored them.

Four men, four average white guys from good families, all chewed up and abused by the system and locked away for a combined total of thirty-three years. Their message was clear: until the system is fixed, it could happen to anyone.

After speaking, they lounged around the amphitheater, listening to the music, eating ice cream, basking in the sun and the freedom. Bruce Leba showed up from nowhere and bear-hugged his old buddy. Bruce had not attended Ronnie's trial, nor had he written him in prison. He felt guilty for this neglect, and he apologized sincerely to his best friend from high school. Ron was quick to forgive him.

He was willing to forgive everyone. The intoxicating smell of freedom smothered old grudges and fantasies of retribution. Though he had dreamed of a massive lawsuit for twelve years, it was all history now. He did not want to relive the nightmares.

The media could not get enough of their stories. Ron especially took the spotlight. Because he was a white man from a white town who'd been knocked around by white cops and charged by a white prosecutor and convicted by a white jury, he became a large and willing subject for reporters and journalists. Such abuse might be common for the poor and the minorities, but not for small-town heroes.

The promising baseball career, the ugly slide into insanity on death row, the near brush with execution, the bumbling cops who couldn't see the obvious killer-the story was rich and layered.

Interview requests poured into Mark Barrett's office from around the world.

After six days in the bush, Glen Gore turned himself in. He contacted an Ada lawyer, who called the prison and made the arrangements. As he was making preparations to surrender, he was very specific in his desire to avoid being handled by the authorities in Ada.

He shouldn't have worried. The gang that couldn't shoot straight wasn't clamoring to get Gore back in Ada for another trial. Time was needed to heal badly wounded egos.

Peterson and the police were posturing behind their official stance that the investigation had been reopened, that they were plowing ahead with new enthusiasm to find the killer, or perhaps killers. Gore was but one player in this effort.

The prosecutor and the police could never admit they were wrong, so they clung to the hopeless belief that maybe they were right. Maybe another drug addict would stumble into the police station and confess, or implicate Ron and Dennis. Maybe a fine new snitch would appear.

Maybe the cops could pinch another dream confession from a witness or suspect. It was Ada. Good, solid police work might turn up all sorts of new leads.

Ron and Dennis had not been excluded.

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