April 05, 2007 03:38 pm
Exonerated man, victim's family push for reform
By Jaclyn Houghton
CNHI News Service
As he takes the stage in front of law students throughout the country, his scars are exposed.
He tells students about the 12 years he lived in prison for a murder he did not commit. He hopes his story, detailed in a book he published last year, will help the future lawyers to not make the same mistake with another person’s life.
“I’ll always feel the effects of what a false conviction caused,” said Dennis Fritz, who lives in Kansas City, Mo. “It’s healed, but the scar’s still there.”
On Dec. 8, 1982, a 21-year-old Ada woman, Debra Sue Carter, was raped and killed after she got off work at the Coachlight Club in Ada.
Fritz, now 57, and friend Ron Williamson were arrested for the crime five years later, but were freed from prison in 1999 after DNA evidence matched another man.
The case is detailed in John Grisham's non-fiction bestseller "The Innocent Man," and is the impetus for a bill introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature.
The bill was not heard this session.
Family members of Carter, as well as Fritz and representatives of the New York-based Innocence Project that helped free Williamson and Fritz, are pushing for state commissions that would look at what mistakes were made in cases where convicts later were exonerated.
“It’s not about placing the blame. It’s about finding out what happened so it doesn’t happen to other families,” said Christy Sheppard of Ada, who is Carter’s cousin.
The 200th DNA-related exoneration is slated to come this month from among the some 250 cases in the works nationally. Eric Ferrero, communication director for the Innocence Project, said it is a time to pause.
“These exonerations individually and collectively are a learning moment for all of us," he said.
There have been eight exonerations in Oklahoma, according to the project, a non-profit, public policy and national litigation organization that deals solely with DNA cases. It began in 1992 when DNA technology was surfacing and law professors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld began allowing law students at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University to look into cases.
Law students worked on cases for several years and about four years ago the separate non-profit project was set up. It is still linked to the school.
Fritz said he spent about 11 years working on his own case in prison, then discovered the Innocence Project. Eventualy, evidence gathered in the Carter murder case was tested for DNA and Fritz and Williamson were cleared.
“I was on my own doing my own case,” Fritz said. “Everybody had jumped off my ship except my family.”
Now he is using a book he recently published, “Journey Toward Justice,” as a vehicle to bring awareness of mistakes that can be made in cases. He said he travels the United States speaking to law schools and also hopes to reach prosecutors and judges.
The false conviction of Fritz and Williamson also affected the lives of Carter’s family members.
Sheppard said the many lawsuits over the past 24 years have taken a physical toll on her aunt, Carter’s mother. Sheppard said she decided she wanted to do something to ensure the same mistakes are not made in other cases.
A woman in Wisconsin who had been raped and had mistakenly put the wrong man in prison for 18 years started an Innocence Commission in Wisconsin to examine the mistakes that were made in cases of false convictions. This woman inspired Sheppard to contact Sen. Susan Paddack, D-Ada, and pursue a similar commission two years ago.
Senate Bill 1471, authored by Paddack, would have created an “Innocence Commission” last year and was passed in the Senate with a 25-20 vote, but did not receive a hearing in the House. Paddack authored a similar bill this session, Senate Bill 940, but it did not even get a hearing in the Senate this time around.
Paddack said last year the bill was criticized as being “soft on crime.”
“I think it’s hard on crime because we want the right person in jail,” she said.
In other tragedies such as plane crashes, she said, investigations are conducted to find out what happened. She does not understand why the same would not apply to wrongful convictions.
Sen. James Williamson, R-Tulsa, and Sen. Richard Lerblance, D-Hartshorne, are the co-chairs in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was where the bill was assigned this year.
Both senators voted for the bill the previous year, but did not hear the bill this session.
Sen. James Williamson said he had “no objection to it being heard this time. I didn’t refuse to hear it.”
He said he cannot recall why the bill was not heard but supported the measure because “I want to know what mistakes are being made so that innocent people are not” going to jail.
Calls to Lerblance for comment were unreturned.
Sheppard said she will continue to fight for the commission as a way to honor her cousin.
Ferrero said only about 10 percent of cases have the evidence needed to conduct DNA tests. He said the biggest cause of mistakes in cases - about 75 percent - deals with eyewitness misidentification. About 60 percent of the cases had mistakes in scientific evidence, about 25 percent had false confessions and about 15 percent resulted from problems with jailhouse snitches.
“Debbie’s case is like the poster child” for many of these problem areas, Sheppard said.
The Innocence Project is working on the case of Curtis Edward McCarty of Moore, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1982 slaying of Pamela Kay Willis.
The evidence used to convict McCarty has been questioned because forensic testimony came from former Oklahoma City Police Department chemist Joyce Gilchrist. Gilchrist was terminated from the department in 2001 for allegedly doctoring trial evidence.
Fritz said he would like to see more communication between investigators and prosecutors and “there needs to be a greater monitoring process.”
Grisham’s book has helped in the fight for reform, Ferrero said.
“It helps to raise awareness about these issues and to have it focus on a real, actual case is very important,” he said.
Ferrero said Oklahoma does have laws in place to provide monetary compensation of up to $175,000 for those wrongly convicted, and also has a law that compels the preservation of evidence in cases. He said this is a start but more is needed.
Sheppard said Grisham’s book did offer an accurate reflection of the case, but has not helped to convince state legislators to take action and form a commission.
For Fritz, the transition from prison to the outside world has not been easy.
“The post-traumatic effects are pretty great after you’ve been alienated for so long,” he said.
He said he received a settlement from the state of Oklahoma a few years ago, which has taken care of him financially, but the state did not help him heal. He said he sought counseling on his own to deal with the healing process.
A lot of inmates who are proven innocent tend to gravitate toward drugs and alcohol to cope, he said.
Ferrero said a conviction, even if a person is exonerated, is often still on a person’s record. It makes it difficult for the person to get a job, even though proven innocent. Plus, many were in prison for 15 to 20 years and have no work experience in that period of time.
The answer to the question “have you ever been convicted of a crime?” on a job application is longer than just "yes", he said.
Fritz has not had to get a job since he was freed. He said the conviction is still on his record. He has found that the first three to five years out of prison are the most difficult, he said. But after more than seven years, he said, he is still healing.
Fritz said his book is helping.
“It’s a very unique opportunity made to me by the Lord by pulling me out,” he said. “I’m going to shout it from the rooftops … For me, it’s not about the money. It’s about bringing that greater awareness.”
Ronald Williamson, freed from prison in 1999 after being wrongly convicted in 1988, died in 2004. Grisham writes in "The Innocent Man," that he had never heard of Williamson until he read his obituary in the New York Times two days after Williamson was buried.
Jaclyn Houghton is CNHI News Service Oklahoma reporter.