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John Grisham’s The Innocent Man

John Grisham’s The Innocent Man is a tragic non-fictional story that shows flaws in the justice system through wrongful convictions, tampering with evidence, and cheating the system. Even though this story takes place in Ada, Oklahoma around 1982, this story could still make anyone terrified at the thought that the same mistake could happen to them. Grisham goes in depth, making sure the reader does not miss a single detail about the events that led up to the murder of Debbie Carter and the false accusations that put Ronald Williamson on death row and Dennis Fritz in prison for life.

The stories two main characters are Ronald Keith Williamson and Dennis Fritz. Ron lived and grew up in Ada, Oklahoma with his two older sisters, Annette and Renee, who happily took care of him while his parents, Juanita and Roy, were at work. As a young boy, Ron discovered baseball and fell in love with it. He was inspired to become the next Mickey Mantle, his favorite baseball player. Ron played baseball throughout his school years and became close friends with another player on his team, Bruce Leba, who introduced Ron to drinking, drugs, and women.

Because of these factors, and a recent injury, Ron’s big dreams of continuing to the big leagues quickly faded as he was cut from the Yankees for the last time. This caused Ron to become depressed, which led to him preforming strange behavior, and was soon diagnosed with a mental illness. But that did not stop Ron’s habits. Within the next few months Ron was convicted twice of rape from two women named Lyza Lentzch and eighteen-year-old Amy Dell Ferneyhough; however Ron was able to post bail and walk free on both occasions.

After these two incidents, people began to despise Ron and labeled him a rapist. Dennis Fritz was a single father with a daughter named Elizabeth. His wife was murdered in her own home on Christmas day in 1975. Dennis was not the same afterward; he began to focus more on his daughter and finally got himself a teaching job in Ada. He eventually got another teaching job in a town called Noble, which was an hour away, but he would travel back and forth to visit his daughter. One night Dennis met Ron; the two hit it off and began regularly barhopping together.

One of their favorite bars just so happened to be the Coachlight, which was also the place where Debra Sue Carter worked, and the very last place she was seen alive. Grisham describes Debra Carter as a “twenty-one year old local girl with dark hair, slender figure, athletic, popular, and independent. ”(Grisham, 4) Debbie lived in an apartment by herself and worked at the Coachlight part-time. It was the night of December 7, 1982 when Debbie was last seen at the Coachlight with Glen Gore, an old friend from high school.

Multiple witnesses, discussed later in the story, describe Gore harassing Debbie throughout the night. Debbie feared going home alone and asked that one of her friends stay with her, but that was not the case and she ended up going home alone anyway. Later that night Gina Vietta, one of Debbie’s friends, got a call from Debbie who said someone was in her house, she felt uncomfortable, and asked her to come pick her up. The call ended shortly and the phone rang again, this time Debbie changed her mind and did not want Gina to pick her up.

Gina began to drive over, but had second thoughts and turned around. It wasn’t until the next morning that Debbie was found raped and dead in her apartment with writing on her back as well as other places around her home. The cause of death was determined as asphyxiation. Over the next few days multiple people who were present at the Coachlight that night were interviewed. They submitted hair and saliva samples as well as reporting Glen Gore being the person to be seen with Debbie that night. Gore was eventually interviewed and stated that he saw Debbie that night but had never been to her apartment.

It took the police three years before finally taking samples from Gore, and even then the samples that were eventually given to the police fell through the cracks and were neglected. The story reaches its climax when Ron and Dennis are accused of committing the Carter murder. Ron’s name was brought up once during an interview with one of his old cell mates, Robert Deatherage. Deatherage told Dennis Smith, a detective for the Ada Police, that he thought Ron was suspicious, had something to do with the murder, and suggested that the police focus on him instead.

From that point forth, detective Smith had no doubt in his mind that that Ron was the killer, Ron fit the description, he was known as a “strange man” around town, and what had made him look more suspicious was the fact that he had previously been thrown in jail for accused rape. Dennis Fritz became involved in the case as an acquaintance due to police ruling that there was no possible way that the murder could have been solely done by one person. When brought in for questioning, neither Ron nor Dennis could recall where they were the night Carter was murdered.

Both men submitted polygraph tests, which both came back inconclusive, as well as saliva and hair samples. The case against Ron and Dennis lacked sufficient evidence to prove that they were guilty, but the police tried to dig up every piece of evidence possible, even if it meant exhuming the body of Debbie Carter and tampering with the evidence, accepting dreams as confessions, and using unreliable hair analysis samples. With this, the police put out arrest warrants and had Ron and Dennis taken into custody. Both cases went to trial separately.

Dennis’ trial was mostly filled with lying jailhouse prisoners who were most likely bribed by the police to testify against Fritz. Ron’s trial was mostly the same thing, with one of the witnesses being Glen Gore, who changed his story and claimed that Ron was at the bar the night of the murder. Gore also reported Debbie telling him that Ron made her feel uneasy that night. Experts also brought up the hair analysis tests which concluded Ron and Dennis’ hair samples “microscopically consistent” with the hair that was found at the crime scene.

Ron’s lawyer, Barney Ward, was not much help as he neglected to discuss many points that could have helped Ron, but he himself was past the point of “fed up” with Ron and the case. That being said, both men were convicted, Dennis put in jail on life sentence and Ron being put on death row. Ron’s mental health drastically deteriorated as years went by on death row, he was constantly on and off different medications and dosages, the guards and other inmates would torment him in the middle of the night, and he would go without eating for long periods of time. Ironically, Ron was on his own death bed while waiting to be executed.

One night Ron found out about a videotaped confession that took place before trial, the tape showed a statement from Ricky Joe Simmons who confessed to the murder of Debbie Carter. Ron became furious that the tape was not brought up at his trial and began screaming for hours on end about his innocence. On the other hand, Dennis spent most of his time in jail researching and learning about the law by reading about different cases throughout the country. With some research and the help of his lawyers, Ron filed many appeals, unfortunately all of them were denied. After eleven years on death row, Ron was finally issued an execution date.

With all hope lost and one last resort, a few days before Ron was scheduled to be executed, his attorney, filed a Habeas Corpus. According to the textbook, page 401, Habeas Corpus is “A judicial order that seeks to determine the validity of a detention by asking the court to release the person or give legal reasons for his or her incarceration. ” The petition was filed and sent to the Judge, Frank Seay, who had little tolerance for Habeas Corpus petitions. The petition was focused on the incompetent defense counsel, Ron’s mental ineptitude to fully understand his charges, the fairness of the trial and the unreliable evidence that followed.

Ron’s case was carefully taken into consideration by the court and was granted a retrial. With the help of The Innocence Project, the physical evidence from the scene was brought back in and was tested, this time in Ron and Dennis’ favor. The DNA tests concluded that not one hair taken from the scene was either Ron’s or Dennis’, but instead made a perfect match to Glen Gore. The trial was Dennis and Ron were found not guilty and released as free men on April 15, 1999. Both Ron and Dennis filed a civil lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma and the defendants, demanding $100 million for mistreatment and neglect of mental illness.

The lawsuit was settled in 2002 on an agreement where both men received large sums of money. Gore was finally charged for the Carter murder on June 24, 2003 with the death penalty, but was overturned in 2005, and was eventually given a second trial in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison. Living as free men, Ron and Dennis lived every moment to the fullest, however, they still felt as though the police were watching their every move and waiting any chance they had to throw them back in prison. Ron’s mental health continued on a downward spiral. He became very ill and passed away in a nursing home on December 4, 2004, only fifty-one years old.

Although the main case/story of the book was based on the Carter murder, another case was thrown into the middle of it that dealt with the Denice Haraway murder. Haraway was working at a convenience store one night when she disappeared with two older men. Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot were accused of killing Haraway by authorities. Ward fit the profile of the man Haraway was last seen with leaving the store. Although Tommy was indeed innocent, he became tired of dealing with the threats from the police and decided to make a false confession saying that Karl Fontenot and Odell Titsworth accompanied him in the murder of Denice Haraway.

Odell Titsworth was let go by the police because they determined there was no way it could have been him. Ward and Fontenot were intensely interrogated and neither of their confessions matched up. They claimed they stabbed her multiple times but when the body was eventually found, it was revealed that Haraway was actually shot in the head. Even though the police had no evidence against them, Ward and Fontenot went to trial. Both men were found guilty and put on death row.

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