For Annette Hudson and Renee Simmons, the news that their brother had been arrested and charged with murder was overwhelming. Since his release from prison the previous October, they had been deeply concerned about his deteriorating mental health and his physical well-being, but they had no idea murder charges were looming. The rumors had been around for years, but so much time had passed, the family had assumed the police were busy with other suspects and other cases. When Juanita died two years earlier, she was confident she had given Dennis Smith clear evidence that Ron was not involved. Annette and Renee believed this, too.
Both were living frugally-raising their families, working occasionally, paying the bills, and saving money when possible. They did not have the cash to hire a criminal defense lawyer. Annette talked to David Morris, but he had no interest in the case. John Tanner was in Tulsa, too far away and too expensive.
Though Ron had dragged them through the court system many times, they were still unprepared for his sudden arrest and the allegations of murder. Friends backed away. The stares and whispers began. An acquaintance said to Annette, "It's not your fault. You can't help what your brother did."
"My brother is not guilty," Annette shot back. She and Renee repeated this continually, but few people wanted to hear it. Forget the presumption of innocence. The cops had their man; why would they have arrested Ron if he wasn't guilty?
Annette's son, Michael, then a fifteen-year-old sophomore, suffered through a class discussion on current local events, the principal one being the arrest of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz for the murder. Since his last name was Hudson, none of his classmates knew that Michael's uncle was the accused killer. Sentiments in the class ran strongly against the two men. Annette was at the school the following morning and got the matter resolved. The teacher apologized profusely and promised to redirect class discussions. Renee and Gary Simmons were living in Chickasha, about ninety miles away, and the distance gave them some relief. Annette, though, had never left Ada, and though she now desperately wanted to flee, she had to stay and support her little brother.
The Sunday, May 10, edition of the Ada Evening News ran a front-page story about the arrests with a photo of Debbie Carter. Bill Peterson provided most of the details. He confirmed that the body had been exhumed and that the mysterious print in fact belonged to the victim. He claimed that both Fritz and Williamson had been suspects for more than a year but did not explain why. As to the investigation itself, he said, "We came to the end of our rope in this investigation about six months ago and began to decide how to approach these things."
Of special interest was the news that the FBI had been involved in the case. Two years earlier the Ada police requested its assistance. The FBI studied the evidence and provided the police with a psychological profile of the killers, though Peterson did not share this with the newspaper.
The following day there was another front-page story, this time with mug shots of Ron and Dennis. Even by mug shot standards, their photos were menacing enough to get convictions.
The story repeated the details from the day before, specifically that both men had been arrested and charged with first-degree rape, rape by instrumentation, and first-degree murder. Oddly enough, "officials" refused to comment on whether the two men had made statements about the crime. Evidently, the reporters in Ada had become so accustomed to confessions that they assumed such statements were generic to all criminal investigations. Though they withheld news about their first dream confession from Ron, the authorities did release the affidavit used for the arrest warrants. The story quoted the affidavit as saying "that both pubic and scalp hair were recovered from Miss Carter's body and bedding that were consistent microscopically with that of Ronald Keith Williamson and Dennis Fritz."
And both men had long criminal records. Ron's tally was fifteen misdemeanors-drunk driving and such-plus one felony for the forgery that sent him to prison. Fritz had two DUIs, some driving charges, plus the old marijuana conviction.
Bill Peterson confirmed again that the body had been exhumed to reexamine a palm print, which was found to be the victim's.
He added that the two men "had been suspects in the case for more than a year." The story concluded by reminding everyone that "Carter died from asphyxiation when a washcloth was stuffed down her throat during the rape."
That same Monday, Ron was led from the jail, across the lawn to the courthouse, about fifty steps, and made his first appearance before Judge John David Miller, the magistrate who handled preliminary matters. He said he did not have a lawyer and wasn't sure if he could afford one. He was taken back to jail.
A few hours later an inmate by the name of Mickey Wayne Harrell allegedly overheard Ron crying, saying, "I'm sorry, Debbie." This was immediately reported to the jailer. Ron then allegedly asked Harrell if he would draw a tattoo on his arm, one that said, "Ron Loves Debbie."
With a hot new crime on the docket, the gossip festered in the jail. The snitching games, always a part ofjail life because the police were so willing to play along, began in earnest. The quickest way to freedom, or at least to a reduced sentence, was to hear or claim to hear a prized suspect confess in whole or in part to his crime, and then trade this off in an attractive plea bargain with the prosecutor. In most jails, snitching was rare because the informants feared retribution from other inmates. In Ada, snitching was widely practiced because it worked so well.
Two days later Ron was taken back to court to discuss the matter of his legal representation. He appeared before Judge John David Miller, and things did not go well. Still unmedicated, he was loud and belligerent and began by yelling, "I didn't do this killing! I'm getting damned tired of being on this rap, now. I feel sorry for the family, but-"
Judge Miller tried to stop him, but Ron wanted to talk. "I didn't kill her. I don't know who killed her. My mother was alive at the time and she knew where I was."
Judge Miller attempted to explain to Ron that the hearing was not designed to allow defendants to plead their case, but Ron kept on. "I want these charges dropped," he said over and over. "This is ridiculous."
Judge Miller asked him if he understood the charges against him, to which Ron replied, "I'm innocent, never been in her company, never been in a car with her."
As his rights were being read into the record, Ron continued ranting. "I've been in jail three times and each time they have tried to say I had something to do with this murder." When the name of Dennis Fritz was read aloud, Ron interrupted: "This guy didn't have anything to do with it. I knew him at the time. He didn't go to the Coachlight."
The judge finally entered a plea of not guilty. Ron was led away, cursing bitterly as he went. Annette watched and wept quietly.
She went to the jail every day, sometimes twice if the jailers allowed. She knew most of them and they all knew Ronnie, and the rules were often bent slightly to allow more visitation.
He was disturbed, still unmedicated, and in need of professional help. He was irate and bitter for being arrested for a crime he had nothing to do with. He was also humiliated. For four and a half years he had lived with the suspicion that he had committed an unspeakable murder. The suspicion was bad enough. Ada was his hometown, his people, his current and former friends, the folks who watched him grow up in church, the fans who remembered him as a great athlete. The whispers and stares were painful, but he had endured them for years. He was innocent, and the truth, if the cops could ever find it, would clear his name.
But to be suddenly arrested and thrown in jail and have his mug shot on the front page was devastating. He wasn't sure if he had ever met Debbie Carter.
While Dennis Fritz sat in a jail cell in Kansas City and waited for the extradition process to send him back to Ada, he was struck by the irony of his arrest. Murder? For years he had dealt with the aftermath of his wife's, and many times he'd almost felt like a victim himself.
Murder? He had never physically harmed anyone. He was small, slightly built, averse to fighting and violence. Sure, he'd been in plenty of bars and some rough places, but he'd always managed to slip away when the brawling began. If Ron Williamson didn't start the fight, then he would certainly stay and finish it, but not Dennis. He was a suspect only because of his friendship with Ron.
Fritz wrote a long letter to the Ada Evening News to explain why he was fighting extradition. He said he refused to return with Smith and Rogers because he couldn't believe he had been charged with the murder. He was innocent, had nothing to do with the crime, and needed some time to get his thoughts together. He was trying to find a good defense lawyer, and his family was scrambling for money.
He summarized his involvement in the investigation. Because he had nothing to hide and wanted to cooperate, he did everything the police asked: gave samples of saliva, fingerprints, handwriting, and hair (even one from his mustache); took two polygraph exams, which, according to Dennis Smith, he "severely flunked." Fritz said that he found out later that he had not flunked the polygraph tests.
About the investigation, Fritz wrote: "For three-and-a-halfyears they have had access to my fingerprints, handwriting, and hair samples to match up with the evidence found at the scene of the crime and any other evidence, if any, to have me arrested long ago. But, according to your paper, six months ago they were at the end of their rope and had to decide how to handle 'these things.' I'm not that dumb to know it doesn't take no crime lab three-and-a-half years to match up my volunteered evidence."
Dennis, the former science teacher, had studied hair evidence years earlier after he had submitted samples. His letter included this paragraph: "How can I be charged with rape and murder on just flimsy evidence such as hair which can only distinguish ethnic groups of people and not individual characteristics within the same group of people in the same ethnic group? Any expert witness in their field knows there could be over half a million people that have the same consistencies of hair."
He concluded with a desperate claim of innocence and asked the question "Am I guilty until proven innocent, or innocent until proven guilty?"
Pontotoc County did not have a full-time public defender. Those accused of crimes who could not afford a lawyer were required to sign a pauper's oath, then the judge would appoint a local lawyer as indigent counsel. Since few people of means get themselves charged with felonies, most of the serious crimes involved indigent defendants. Robberies, drugs, and assaults were the crimes of the lower classes, and since most of the defendants were guilty, their court-appointed lawyers could investigate, interview, plea-bargain, do the paperwork, close the file, and pick up a very modest fee.
In fact, the fees were so modest most lawyers preferred to avoid the cases. The haphazard indigent defense system was fraught with problems. Judges often assigned cases to lawyers with little or no criminal law experience. There was no money for expert witnesses and other expenses.
Nothing makes a small-town bar scatter more quickly than a capital murder case. The visibility ensures that the lawyer will be watched carefully as he fights to protect the rights of a low-class defendant accused of some heinous crime. The hours required are burdensome and can virtually shut down a small law office. The fee is nothing compared to the work. And the appeals drag on forever.
The great fear is that no one will agree to represent the accused and that the judge will simply assign the case. Most courtrooms are usually teeming with lawyers when court is in session, but they become empty tombs when a capital murder defendant is hauled in with his pauper's oath. The lawyers flee to their offices, lock the doors, and unplug the phones.
Perhaps the most colorful courthouse regular in Ada was Barney Ward, a blind lawyer known for his snappy dressing, hard living, tall stories, and penchant for being "involved" in most of the legal gossip in Ada. He seemed to know everything that went on in the courthouse.
Barney lost his eyesight as a teenager when a high school chemistry experiment went awry. He treated the tragedy as a temporary setback and finished high school. He enrolled at East Central in Ada, where his mother served as his reader. After graduation, he went to Norman and studied law at the University of Oklahoma, again with his mother at his side. He graduated, passed the bar exam, returned to Ada, and ran for county attorney. He won and for several years served as the county's chief prosecutor. In the mid-1950s, he established a private practice specializing in criminal defense, and soon had the reputation as a strong advocate for his clients. Quick on his feet, Barney could sniff a weakness in the prosecution's case and would pounce on opposing witnesses. He was a brutal cross-examiner and loved a good scrap.
In one legendary encounter, Barney actually threw a punch at another lawyer. He and David Morris were in court arguing evidentiary matters. Both were frustrated, things were tense, and Morris made the mistake of saying, "Look, Judge, even a blind man can see this." Barney lunged at him, or in his general direction, threw a roundhouse right, and barely missed. Order was restored. Morris apologized but kept his distance. Everybody knew Barney, and he was often seen around the courthouse with his faithful assistant, Linda, who read everything for him and took his notes. From time to time he used a Seeing Eye dog to help him around, though he preferred a young lady. He was friendly with everyone and never forgot a voice. The other lawyers elected him president of the bar association, and not out of sympathy. Barney was so well liked that he was asked to join a poker club. He produced a set of Braille cards, claimed that only he could deal, and was soon raking in all the chips. The other players decided that perhaps it was best if Barney played but never dealt. His winnings were somewhat reduced.
Each year, the other lawyers invited Barney to deer camp, a week-long, boys-only getaway with lots of bourbon and poker and dirty jokes and thick stews, and, time permitting, some hunting. Barney's dream was to kill a deer. In the woods his friends found a nice buck and quietly maneuvered Barney into position, handed him the rifle, adjusted it carefully, aimed it, then whispered, "Fire." Barney pulled the trigger, and though he missed badly, his friends claimed the deer had narrowly escaped death. Barney told the story for decades.
Like many hard drinkers, he finally had to quit. At the time he was using a dog for guidance, and the dog had to be replaced when he couldn't break the habit of leading Barney to the liquor store. Evidently he went there often, because one lingering bit of lore is that the whiskey store went out of business when Barney went off the booze. He loved to make money and had little patience with clients who couldn't pay. His motto was "Innocent until proven broke." By the mid-1980s, though, Barney was a bit past his prime. He was known to occasionally miss things in trial because he was asleep. He wore thick dark glasses that covered much of his face, and the judges and lawyers couldn't tell if he was listening or napping. His opponents caught on, and the strategy, whispered because Barney heard everything, was to drag a case or a hearing past lunch and into the afternoon when he always took his nap. If you could make it to 3:00 p.m., your chances of beating Barney rose dramatically.
Two years earlier, he had been approached by the family of Tommy Ward, no relation, but had passed on the case. He was convinced Ward and Fontenot were innocent, but he preferred not to handle capital cases. The paperwork was overwhelming, and not one of his strengths.
Now he was approached again. Judge John David Miller asked Barney to represent Ron Williamson. Barney was the most experienced criminal defense attorney in the county, and his expertise was needed. After a brief hesitation, he said yes. A pure lawyer, he knew the Constitution inside and out, and he believed strongly that every defendant, regardless of how unpopular, was entitled to a vigorous defense.
On June 1, 1987, Barney Ward was appointed by the court to represent Ron, his first death penalty client. Annette and Renee were pleased. They knew him, and they knew of his reputation as one of the best criminal defense lawyers in town.
The lawyer and the client got off to a rocky start. Ron was tired of the jail and the jail was quite tired of him. Conferences took place in a small visitors' room near the front door, a place Barney found too cozy with his unruly client. He made a call and arranged a mental checkup for Ron. A new supply of Thorazine was prescribed, and much to the relief of Barney and the entire jail the drug worked beautifully. In fact, it worked so well the guards overused it to keep peace. Ron was sleeping like an infant again.
During one conference, though, he could barely speak. Barney met with the jailers, the dosage was readjusted, and Ron sprang back to life.
He was generally uncooperative with his lawyer. He offered little but a steady stream of rambling denials. He was being railroaded into a conviction, just like Ward and Fontenot. Barney was frustrated from the day he was appointed, but he plowed ahead.
Glen Gore was in jail on kidnapping and assault charges. His court-appointed counsel was Greg Saunders, a young lawyer who was building a civil practice in Ada. During a client conference at the jail, he and Gore almost came to blows. Saunders walked next door to the courthouse and asked Judge Miller to remove him from the case. Judge Miller refused, so Saunders said he would take the next capital murder appointment if he could get rid of Gore. A deal, said Judge Miller, you're now representing Dennis Fritz in the Carter murder.
Though Greg Saunders was apprehensive about his death penalty case, he was also excited about working closely with Barney Ward. As an undergraduate at East Central, he had dreamed of being a trial lawyer and had often cut classes when he knew Barney was in action. He had watched Barney rip shaky witnesses and intimidate prosecutors. Barney respected judges but did not fear them, and he could chat with a jury. He never used his disability as a crutch, but at crucial moments he could use it to arouse sympathy. To Greg Saunders, Barney was a brilliant courtroom lawyer.
Working independently, but also quietly working together, they filed a truckload of motions and soon had the district attorney's office scrambling. On June 11, Judge Miller called a hearing on issues raised by both the state and the defense. Barney was demanding a list of the names of all the witnesses the prosecution expected to use in the case. Oklahoma law required such disclosure, but Bill Peterson was having trouble with the statute. Barney explained it to him. The prosecutor wanted to disclose only those witnesses he planned to use at the preliminary hearing. Not so, said Judge Miller, and Peterson was ordered to timely notify the defense of any new witness.
Barney was in a feisty mood and prevailed on most of the motions. He was also showing signs of frustration. In one aside, he commented on being court appointed and not wanting to spend too much time on the case. He vowed to do a proper job, but was worried about getting consumed with his first capital murder trial.
The following day he filed a motion requesting additional counsel for Ron. The state did not object, and on June 16 Frank Baber was appointed by Judge Miller to help Barney. The legal wrangling and paperwork battles continued as both sides prepared for the preliminary hearing.
Dennis Fritz was placed in a cell not far from Ron Williamson. He couldn't see Ron, but he could certainly hear him. When he wasn't over-medicated, Ron yelled constantly. For hours, he would stand at the bars in his cell door and bellow over and over, "I am innocent. I am innocent." His deep and husky voice echoed through the cramped building. He was a wounded animal, in a cage, in dire need of help. The prisoners were stressed anyway, but Ron's screeching voice added another thick layer of anxiety. Other inmates would yell back at him and taunt him about killing Debbie Carter. The bickering and cursing back and forth were occasionally amusing but generally nerve-racking. The jailers moved Ron from his isolation cell into a bullpen with a dozen others, an arrangement that proved disastrous. The men had little privacy and practically lived shoulder to shoulder. Ron respected no one's space. A petition quickly appeared. It was signed by the other prisoners and begged the jailers to take Ron back to isolation. To prevent a riot or a killing, the guards agreed.
Then there were long periods of silence, and everyone, inmates and guards, would breathe easier. Soon the entire jail knew that either John Christian was on duty or the guards had given Ron another toxic dose of Thorazine.
The Thorazine quieted him, though at times there were other side effects. It often made his legs itch, and the "Thorazine shuffle" became part of the jail's routine as Ron stood at the bars of his cell and ducked and weaved from side to side for hours.
Fritz would talk to him and try to calm him, but it was hopeless. Ron's cries of innocence were painful to hear, especially for Dennis, who knew him best. It was obvious that Ron needed much more than a bottle of pills.
Neuroleptic drugs are synonymous with tranquilizers and antipsy-chotics, and are used primarily on schizophrenics. Thorazine is a neuroleptic, and it has a tortured history. In the 1950s it began flooding state mental hospitals. It's a potent drug that strongly reduces awareness and interest. Psychiatrists who support the drug claim it actually cures the patient by altering or repairing bad brain chemistry.
But critics, who greatly outnumber supporters, cite numerous studies that show the drug to produce a long, frightening list of side effects. Sedation, drowsiness, lethargy, poor concentration, nightmares, emotional difficulties, depression, despair, lack of spontaneous interest in the surroundings, a blunting or dulling of the patient's awareness and motor control. Thorazine is toxic to most brain functions and disrupts nearly all of them.
Its harshest critics have called it "nothing more than a chemical lobotomy." They claim that the only real purpose of Thorazine is to save money for mental institutions and prisons and to make patients and inmates more manageable.
Ron's Thorazine was doled out by his jailers, sometimes with instructions from his lawyer. Often, though, there was no supervision. He got a pill when he got too loud. Even though Dennis Fritz had remained in Ada for four years after the murder, he was considered an escape risk. Like Ron's, his bail was exorbitant and out of the question. Like all defendants, they were presumed to be innocent, but nonetheless kept in jail so they wouldn't flee or be loose on the streets killing others.
Presumed innocent, but they would wait almost a year until they went to trial.
A few days after Dennis arrived at the jail, a man by the name of Mike Tenney suddenly appeared outside his cell. Fat and balding and not well spoken, Tenney nonetheless had a big smile and a friendly manner, and he treated Dennis like an old friend. And he desperately wanted to talk about the Carter murder.
Dennis had been around Ada long enough to know the jail was a cesspool of snitches, liars, and cutthroats, and he knew that any conversation with anyone could very well be repeated in a courtroom in a version slanted sharply against the person on trial. Every inmate, guard, cop, trustee, janitor, cook, everyone was a potential snitch, anxious to pick up details and then retail the information to cops.
Tenney said he was new to the place and claimed to be a jailer, but in fact he was not yet on the county's payroll. Though unsolicited, and certainly not based on knowledge or experience, Tenney had plenty of advice for Dennis. In his opinion, Dennis was in deep trouble, staring at an execution, and the best way to save his skin was to come clean, confess, cut a deal with Peterson over at the D.A.'s office, and give up the dirt on Ron Williamson.
Peterson would be fair. Dennis just listened.
Tenney wouldn't go away. He returned every day, shaking his head gravely at Dennis's predicament, babbling on about the system and how he thought it operated, giving sage advice that was absolutely free.
Dennis just listened.
A preliminary hearing was scheduled for July 20, before Judge John David Miller. Like in most jurisdictions, preliminaries were crucial in Oklahoma because the state was required to play its hand, to show the court and everyone else who its witnesses would be and what they would say.
The challenge for a prosecutor at a preliminary was to show just enough evidence to convince the judge that there were reasonable grounds that the defendant was guilty while not yet revealing everything to the defense. It was gamesmanship, with a bit of risk. Normally, though, a prosecutor had little to worry about. Local judges find it hard to get reelected if they dismiss criminal charges.
But with such flimsy evidence against both Fritz and Williamson, Bill Peterson had to push hard at the preliminary. He had so little to offer that he could certainly hold nothing back. And the local newspaper would be there, anxious to report every word. Three months after its publication, The Dreams ofAda was still being hotly debated around town. The preliminary hearing would be Peterson's first performance in a major trial since the book came out.
A nice crowd gathered in the courtroom. Dennis Fritz's mother was there, as were Annette Hudson and Renee Simmons. Peggy Stillwell, Charlie Carter, and their two daughters arrived early. The regulars-bored lawyers, local gossips, idle clerks, retirees with nothing to do-waited for their first good look at the two murderers. The trial was months away, but the live testimony was about to be heard.
Before the hearing, and just for the sheer fun of it, the Ada police informed Ron that Dennis Fritz had finally made a full confession that implicated both of them in the rape and murder. The shocking news sent Ron off the deep end.
Dennis was sitting quietly with Greg Saunders at the defense table, looking over some documents, waiting for the hearing to begin. Ron was sitting nearby, still handcuffed and shackled and glaring at Fritz as if he wanted to choke him. Suddenly and without warning, Ron bolted out of his chair and began screaming at Fritz, who was just a few feet away. A table went flying through the air and landed on Barney's assistant, Linda. Dennis jumped up quickly and moved near the witness stand as the guards tackled Ron. "Dennis! You no good lousy son of a bitch!" he screamed. "We're gonna settle this right now!" His deep, husky voice boomed around the courtroom. Barney got hit and fell out of his chair. The guards grabbed Ron, tackled him, and tried to subdue him. He was kicking and thrashing about like a madman, and the guards had their hands full. Dennis, Greg Saunders, and the court personnel quickly backed away and gawked in disbelief at the sight of the pileup in the middle of the courtroom.
It took several minutes to subdue Ron, who was bigger than any of his guards. As they dragged him away, Ron spewed a vile stream of vulgarities and threats at Fritz. When the dust settled, the tables and chairs were rearranged and everyone took a deep breath. Barney didn't see the brawl, but he knew he'd been in the middle of it. He rose and said:
I want the record to show that I am now making an application to withdraw. That boy won't cooperate with me at all. If he was paying me I wouldn't be here. I can't represent him, Judge, I just can't do it. I don't know who's going to, but I can't. And I'm-if I can't get relief here-I'm going to see if I can't get it from the Court of Criminal Appeals. I'm not going to put up with this. I'm too damned old for it, Judge. I don't want anything to do with him, under any circumstances. I have no idea about his guilt-that has nothing to do with it-but I'm not going to put up with this. The next thing you know, he'll be thumping on me; and when he does, he's in bad trouble, and I'll probably be in worse trouble. To which Judge Miller quickly replied, "Counsel's motion will be overruled."
It was heartbreaking for Annette and Renee to watch their brother act like a madman and to see him dragged around in chains. He was sick and needed help, a long stint in an institution with good doctors who could get him well. How could the state of Oklahoma put him on trial when he was so obviously sick?
Across the aisle, Peggy Stillwell watched the madman and shuddered at the image of the violence he had inflicted on her daughter.
After a few minutes of order, Judge Miller ordered Williamson brought in again. In the holding room, the guards had explained to Ron that his behavior was inappropriate for a judicial setting and that further outbursts would be dealt with sternly. But as they led him in, he began cursing Dennis Fritz as soon as he saw him. The judge sent him back to jail, cleared the courtroom of all spectators, and waited an hour.
Back in the jail, the guards ramped up their warnings, but Ron didn't care. Bogus confessions were all too common in Pontotoc County, and he couldn't believe the cops had squeezed one out of Dennis Fritz. Ron was an innocent man and determined not to be persecuted like Ward and Fontenot. If he could get his hands around Dennis's neck, he would shake out the truth.
His third entry was identical to the first two. As he stepped into the courtroom, he yelled, "Fritz, we're going to settle this now-you and me is going to settle it."
Judge Miller interrupted him, but Ron didn't slow down. "Me and you is going to settle it," he yelled at Dennis. "I ain't never killed nobody."
"Hold him there," Judge Miller said to the guards. "Mr. Williamson, any further outbursts of anger, this hearing will be conducted without your presence."
"That'll be fine with me," Ron shot back.
"Okay, you understand-"
"I'd rather not be here. If you don't mind, I'd rather go back to my cell." "You wish to waive your right to be present in the preliminary hearing?" "Yes, I do."
"Nobody's threatening or forcing you to do this, this is your own personal-" "I'm threatening," Ron snapped, glaring at Dennis.
"Has anybody threatened you-this is your own personal decision to waive your-" "I said I'm threatening."
"Okay. You do not wish to appear at this hearing; is that correct?" "That's correct."
"Okay. You may take him back to the county jail. Court record will reflect that the Defendant Ronald K. Williamson does waive his right to appearance in this courtroom due to his outbursts of anger and total disruption. And the Court finds that this hearing cannot be conducted with his presence based on-to his current statements to this Court and outbursts."
Ron went to his cell, and the preliminary hearing proceeded.
In 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case known as Bishop v. United States, ruled that the conviction of a mentally incompetent person was a denial of due process. Where doubt exists as to a person's mental competency, the failure to conduct a proper inquiry is a deprivation of his constitutional rights.
After Ron Williamson had spent two months in jail, no one involved in his prosecution or defense had questioned his mental competency. The evidence was blatantly obvious. His medical history was extensive and readily available to the court. His rantings in jail, though somewhat regulated by the arbitrary dispensing of medications by his lawyer and his jailers, were clear warnings. His reputation in Ada was well known, especially to the police.
And his behavior in court had been seen before. Two years earlier, when the state attempted to revoke Ron's suspended sentence on the escape charge, he so completely disrupted the hearing that he was sent to a mental hospital for evaluation. Presiding then was John David Miller, the same Judge Miller who was now holding the preliminary hearing. It was Judge Miller who had adjudicated him to be mentally incompetent at that time.
Now, two years later and with the death penalty at issue, Judge Miller evidently saw no need to inquire into Ron's state of mind.
Oklahoma had a statute that allowed a judge, including one presiding over a preliminary hearing, to suspend the proceedings if the competency of a defendant became an issue. No motion from the defense was required. Most trial lawyers would argue strenuously that their client had a history of mental problems and should be evaluated, but absent such a plea it remained the judge's duty to protect the constitutional rights of the defendant.
The silence of Judge Miller should have been shattered by Barney Ward. As defense counsel, he could have requested a complete psychological evaluation of his client. The next step would have been to seek a competency hearing, the same routine procedure David Morris had pursued two years earlier. A final step would have been an insanity defense.
With Ron out of the courtroom, the preliminary hearing proceeded quietly and in order. It ran for several days, and Ron never left his cell. Whether he was competent enough to assist in his own defense made little difference.
Dr. Fred Jordan testified first and went through the autopsy and the cause of death- asphyxiation by either the belt around the neck or the washcloth stuffed in the mouth, or probably both.
The lying began with the second witness, Glen Gore, who testified that on the night of December 7 he was at the Coachlight with some friends, one of whom was Debbie Carter, a girl he'd gone to school with and had known most of his life. At some point during the night she asked Gore to "save" her or to "rescue" her because Ron Williamson was there, too, and he was pestering her.
He did not see Dennis Fritz at the Coachlight on December 7.
Under cross-examination, Gore said he told the police about this on December 8, but their report of his interview does not mention Ron Williamson. Nor was their report submitted to the defense, as required by the rules of procedure.
Thus, Glen Gore became the only witness with direct evidence against Ron Williamson. By placing him in contact and in conflict with Debbie Carter just hours before her murder, he, technically, established the link between the murderer and his victim. All other evidence was circumstantial.
Only a prosecutor as determined as Bill Peterson would be brazen enough to allow a criminal like Glen Gore anywhere near his case. Gore had been brought to the preliminary hearing in cuffs and chains. He was serving a forty-year prison sentence for breaking and entering, kidnapping, and attempting to kill a police officer. Five months earlier, Gore had broken into the home of his former wife, Gwen, and taken her hostage, along with his young daughter. He was drunk and for five hours held them at gunpoint. When a policeman, Rick Carson, glanced through a window, Gore aimed, fired, and hit Carson in the face. Fortunately, the injuries were not serious. Before sobering up and surrendering, Gore also shot at another police officer.
It was not his first violent altercation with Gwen. In 1986, during the unraveling of their rocky marriage, Gore was charged with breaking into Gwen's house and stabbing her repeatedly with a butcher knife. She survived and pressed charges, and Gore faced two counts of first-degree burglary and one count of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
Two months earlier, he'd been charged for assaulting Gwen by choking her. In 1981, he'd been charged for forcibly entering the home of another woman. Gore also had an assault-and-battery charge from his Army days and a long list of convictions for petty crimes.
One week after his name was listed as an additional witness against Ron Williamson, a plea-bargain agreement was filed. At the same time, one charge of kidnapping and one of assault with a dangerous weapon were dismissed. When Gore was sentenced, his exwife's parents filed a letter with the court in which they begged for a long prison sentence. It read, in part:
We want you to be aware of how dangerous we feel this man is. He intends to kill our daughter, granddaughter, and ourselves. This he has told us. We have gone to great lengths to make our daughter's home burglar proof, but all failed. To go into detail all the times he has attacked her would make too lengthy a letter. Please give our daughter enough time to get the child raised before he is out of prison and the terror starts, so the little one never has to live through that again.
For years, Barney Ward had suspected that Glen Gore was involved in the Carter murder. He was a career criminal with a history of violence against women, and he was the last person seen with the victim. It was incomprehensible that the police showed so little interest in Gore.
Gore's fingerprints were never submitted to the OSBI for analysis. Prints from a total of forty-four people were submitted, but not Gore's. At one point, he agreed to take a polygraph exam, but one was never administered. The Ada police lost the first set of hair samples Gore gave them, some two years after the murder. He then submitted another set, and perhaps another. No one could remember exactly.
Barney, with his uncanny ability to hear and remember the courthouse gossip, firmly believed that Gore should have been investigated by the police. And he knew that his boy, Ronnie Williamson, was not guilty.
The Gore mystery was partially explained fourteen years after the preliminary hearing. Glen Gore, still in prison, signed an affidavit in which he stated that during the early 1980s he was selling drugs in Ada. He mentioned methamphetamine. Some of his transactions involved Ada policemen, specifically one Dennis Corvin, whom Gore described as a "primary supplier" and who frequented Harold's Club, where Gore worked. When Gore owed them money, they would arrest him under false pretenses, but for the most part the cops left him alone. Under oath, he said in his affidavit, "However, most of the time during the early 1980's I was aware that I was receiving favorable treatment from Ada law enforcement because I was involved in drug transactions with them." And, "This favorable treatment ended when I was no longer involved in the drug business with Ada police." He blamed his forty-year prison sentence on the fact that he "was no longer selling drugs to the Ada police."
Regarding Williamson, Gore said in 2001, he did not know if Ron was at the Coachlight the night of the murder. The police showed him a lineup of photos, pointed to Ron, and explained that he was the man they were interested in. "Then they directly suggested that I identify Mr. Williamson."
And, "To this day I do not know if Ron Williamson was at the bar on the night that Debbie Carter disappeared. I made the identification because I knew the police expected me to do that."
Gore's affidavit was prepared by an attorney, and it was reviewed by his own lawyer before he signed it.
The state's next witness was Tommy Glover, a regular at the Coach-light and one of the last to see Debbie Carter. His initial recollection was that she was talking with Glen Gore in the parking lot and that she pushed him away before driving off.
But four years and seven months later, he remembered things a bit differently. Glover testified at the preliminary hearing that he saw Gore speak to Debbie and that she got in her car and drove away. Nothing more or less.
Charlie Carter testified next and told the story of finding his daughter on the morning of December 8, 1982.
OSBI agent Jerry Peters, a "Crime Scene Specialist," was called to the stand. It wasn't long before he was in trouble. Barney smelled a rat and grilled Peters on his conflicting opinions about the palm print on the Sheetrock. A firm opinion in March 1983, then, surprise, an about-face in May 1987. What prompted Peters to rethink his original opinion that the palm print did not belong to Debbie Carter, Ron Williamson, or Dennis Fritz? Could it have been that this opinion didn't really help the prosecution? Peters did admit that nothing happened for four years, then a phone call early in 1987 from Bill Peterson prompted him to ponder his earlier judgment. After the exhumation and reprinting, he suddenly changed his mind and issued a report that was exactly what the prosecution wanted.
Greg Saunders joined the assault on behalf of Dennis Fritz, and it was obvious the evidence had been reconstructed. But it was only a preliminary hearing, not a trial that required proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Peters also testified that of the twenty-one fingerprints found in the apartment and on the car, nineteen belonged to Debbie Carter herself, one to Mike Carpenter, one to Dennis Smith, and none to either Fritz or Williamson.
The prosecution's star was the amazing Terri Holland. From October 1984 to January 1985, Holland had been locked up in the Pontotoc County jail for writing bad checks. As far as unsolved murders went in Oklahoma, it was a productive and remarkable four month stay.
First she claimed she heard Karl Fontenot admit everything about the Denice Haraway kidnapping and murder. She testified in the first Ward/Fontenot trial in September 1985 and gave the jury all the lurid details that Detectives Smith and Rogers had furnished Tommy Ward during his dream confession. After she testified, she was given a light sentence on the check charges, in spite of having two prior felonies. Ward and Fontenot went to death row; Terri Holland fled the county.
She left behind some unpaid court fines and such, nothing the authorities would take seriously under normal circumstances. But they found her and brought her back anyway. Facing more charges, she suddenly had some astounding news for the investigators. When she was in jail hearing Fontenot's story, she also heard Ron Williamson make a full confession.
What an amazing stroke of luck for the cops! Not only had they generated a dream confession-their favorite investigatory tool-but now they had another snitch, their second-favorite weapon.
Holland was vague on exactly why she had not told anyone about Ron's confession until sometime in the spring of 1987. Over two years had passed without a word. She was never asked why she rushed to tell Smith and Rogers about Fontenot's admissions. On the stand during the preliminary, she had a grand time with her fiction. With Ron absent from the proceedings, she was free to create all sorts of tales. She told of one episode in which he yelled into the phone at his mother and said, "I'll kill you just like I killed Debbie Carter."
The only telephone in the jail was on a wall in the front office. On the rare occasions when inmates were allowed to make calls, they were forced to lean over a counter, stretch to get the receiver, and talk in the presence of whoever happened to be working the front desk. Eavesdropping by another inmate was unlikely, if not impossible.
Terri Holland testified that Ron once made a phone call to a church, asked someone there for cigarettes, and threatened to burn down the place if they didn't bring him some. Again, no one could verify this statement. And she was not quizzed on the layout of the jail, and how, exactly, did a female prisoner get so close to the men?
Peterson led her along: "Did he ever say anything that you overheard him say about what he had done to Debbie Carter? " "Yeah, he was talking in the bullpens," she answered. "It was right after they brought in Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot." "What did he say in the bullpens in relationship to what he said he had done to Debbie Carter?"
"He just said that-I don't know how to say it. He said she thought she was better than he was, and that he showed the bitch she wasn't."
"He said he made her make love to him, only that's not how he said it. I don't even remember how he said it. He said that he shoved a Coke-catsup bottle up her ass and her panties down her throat, and he taught her a lesson."
Bill Peterson plowed ahead with his leading questions. "Did he say anything in relationship about Debbie should have come off of it or anything like that?" Peterson asked.
"Yeah, he'd tried to go with her, and she didn't want nothing to do with him, and he said she'd been better off if she would just come off of it and give it to him."
"And that he would not have had to do what?" Peterson asked, desperate to prompt his shaky witness. "Wouldn't have had to kill her."
It was remarkable that Bill Peterson, as an officer of the court and charged with the duty to seek the truth, could elicit such garbage.
A crucial part of snitching is getting paid. Terri Holland was allowed to plea-bargain herself out of trouble and out ofjail. She agreed to a monthly payment plan for restitution, but soon abandoned her obligations.
At the time, few people knew that Terri Holland had a history with Ron Williamson.
Years earlier, when he was peddling Rawleigh products around Ada, he stumbled upon a little unexpected sex. He knocked on a door, and a female voice asked him to step inside. When he did, a woman named Marlene Keutel presented herself completely in the nude. There appeared to be no one else at home, and one thing quickly led to another. Marlene Keutel was mentally unstable, and a week after the episode she committed suicide. Ron returned several times to sell her more products, but never found her at home. He did not know she was dead.
Her sister was Terri Holland. Shortly after the sexual encounter, Marlene told Terri about it and claimed Ron had raped her. No charges were brought; none were contemplated. Though Terri knew her sister was crazy, she still believed that Ron was responsible for Marlene's death. Ron had long since forgotten about the quickie, and had no idea who Terri Holland was.
The first day of the preliminary hearing dragged on with the laborious testimony of Dennis Smith, who described in detail the crime scene and the investigation. The only surprise came when Smith discussed the various writings left behind by the killers-the message on the wall scrawled in red fingernail polish, the "don't look fore us or ealse" in catsup on the kitchen table, and the scarcely readable words on Debbie's stomach and back. Detectives Smith and Rogers thought such handwriting might be traceable, so, four years earlier, they asked Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson to write something on a white index card.
The detectives had virtually no experience with handwriting analysis, but, not surprisingly, they felt strongly that they had a match. The samples given by Fritz and Williamson, words written in pen on an index card, looked suspiciously similar to the red fingernail polish message left on a wall and the smeared catsup in the kitchen. They took their suspicions to some unidentified agent at the OSBI, and, according to Smith, this agent agreed and gave them a "verbal" confirmation.
Under cross-examination from Greg Saunders, Smith testified, "Well, the handwriting, according to the person we talked to, was similar to the handwriting we found on the wall of the apartment."
"What about the table?" "Both of them were similar."
A few minutes later, Barney grilled Smith on the handwriting analysis. He asked Smith if he had a report from the OSBI on Ron's handwriting.
"We did not submit it," Smith admitted.
Barney was incredulous. Why wasn't it submitted to the OSBI? They have the experts. Maybe they could have eliminated Ron and Dennis as suspects.
Smith was on the defensive. "There were similarities in the handwriting; but, you know, it was based on our observations, and nothing really scientific. I mean, we were, you know, we saw the similarities in it; but, you know, to compare two different types of writing like this is nearly an impossibility. You have writing with a brush, you have writing with a pencil, and that's two different types of writing."
Barney replied, "Well now, you're not trying to tell this court that there's a possibility that these two boys, Dennis Fritz and Ronnie Williamson, took turns with that fingernail brush, or fingernail polish brush, and wrote a statement about Jim Smith and the other, you know, one of them wrote one letter and just alternated or anything of that nature which would give you the same conclusions, are you? "
"No, but I think it was our opinion that both of them had a hand at the writing, not necessarily on the same writing, but, you know, there was several different writings in the apartment."
Though the handwriting testimony was offered at the preliminary to help prod the case along, it would prove too flimsy even for Bill Peterson to use at trial.
At the end of the first day, Judge Miller was concerned about Ron's absence. At a bench conference, he expressed his worries to the lawyers. "I've done some reading about the absence of the defendant. I'm going to have Mr. Williamson brought back over about a quarter till nine and inquire one more time whether or not he still wishes not to be present. If he does, then he's going back again."
To which Dr. Barney added helpfully, "Do you want me to load him down with about a hundred milligrams of-" "I'm not telling you what to do," Judge Miller interrupted.
At 8:45 the following morning, Ron was escorted into the courtroom. Judge Miller addressed him by saying, "Mr. Williamson, yesterday you had expressed your desire not to be present during the preliminary hearing."
"I don't want to even be up here," Ron said. "I didn't have anything to do with this killing.
I never-I don't know who killed her. I don't know anything about it."
"Okay. Your conduct and your disruptive behavior-you can reclaim your right to be present if you so desire, but you'll have to promise and be willing not to be disruptive and disorderly. And you'll have to do that in order to reclaim that right. Do you wish to be present?"
"No, I don't want to be here."
"And you understand that you have the right to be here and listen to all the witnesses' testimony?"
"I don't want to be here. Whatever you all do I can't help it. I'm tired of being crazy about this. It's suffered me so much; I just don't want to be here."
"Okay, and that's your decision. You do not wish to be present?" "That's correct."
"And you're waiving your right to confront witnesses by doing that under the
"Yes I am. You all can charge me on something I didn't do. You all can do anything you want to do." Ron then looked at Gary Rogers and said, "You scare me, Gary. You can charge me after four and a half years of harassing me, sir, you all can go at it because you all is the ones in control, not me."
Ron was taken back to jail, and the hearing resumed with the testimony of Dennis Smith. Gary Rogers followed with a tedious narrative of the investigation, then OSBI agents Melvin Hett and Mary Long testified about the forensics involved in the case- fingerprints, hair analysis, and the components in blood and saliva.
After the state rested its case, Barney called ten witnesses-all jailers or former trustees.
Not a one recalled hearing anything vaguely similar to what Terri Holland claimed she heard.
When the testimony was over, Barney and Greg Saunders asked the court to dismiss the rape charges because they had not been brought within three years of the crime, as required by Oklahoma law. Murder has no statute of limitations, but all other crimes do. Judge Miller said he would rule on the motion at a later date.
Almost lost in the shuffle was Dennis Fritz. The focus of Peterson's prosecution was obviously Ron Williamson, and his star witnesses-Gore, Terri Holland, Gary Rogers (with the dream confession)-all testified against Ron. The only proof that remotely tied Fritz to the murder was the hair analysis testimony of Melvin Hett.
Greg Saunders argued long and hard that the state had not met its burden of proving probable cause that Dennis Fritz was connected to the killing. Judge Miller took the matter under advisement.
Barney joined in the fray with a noisy motion to dismiss all charges because of such light evidence, and Greg followed suit. When Judge Miller didn't issue a ruling immediately, when it became apparent he was actually considering the merits of the defense motions, the police and prosecutors realized they needed more evidence.
Scientific experts carry great weight with juries, especially in small towns, and when the experts are employees of the state and called by the prosecution to testify against criminal defendants, their opinions are deemed infallible.
Barney and Greg Saunders knew the hair and fingerprint testimony from the OSBI crowd was suspect, but they needed some help to dispute it. They would be allowed to crossexamine the state's experts and attempt to discredit them, but they also knew that lawyers rarely win such arguments. Experts are hard to pin down, and jurors are quickly confused. What the defense needed was an expert or two at its table. They filed a motion requesting such assistance. Such motions were commonly made but rarely granted. Experts cost money, and many local officials, including judges, cringed at the idea of forcing the taxpayers to cover the bill for an indigent defense that ran too high. The motion was argued. Left unsaid was the fact that Barney was blind. If anyone needed help in analyzing hair fibers and fingerprints, it was Barney Ward.