| 1. Introduction|
The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town is a 2006 nonfiction book by John Grisham. It is, like Grisham's Skipping Christmas, outside the legal fiction genre. The book tells the story of Ronald 'Ron' Keith Williamson of Ada, Oklahoma, a former minor league baseball player who was wrongly convicted in 1988 for the rape and murder of Debra Sue Carter in Ada and was sentenced to death. After serving 11 years on death row, he was exonerated by DNA evidence and other material introduced by the Innocence Project and was released in 1999.
2. Plot Summary
Ron Williamson has returned to his hometown of Ada, Oklahoma after multiple failed attempts to play for various minor league baseball teams, including the Fort Lauderdale Yankees and two farm teams owned by the Oakland A's. A shoulder injury inhibited his chances to progress. His big dreams were not enough to overcome the odds (less than 10 percent) of making it to a big league game. His failures lead to, or aggravate, his depression and problem drinking.
Early in the morning of December 8, 1982, the body of Debra Sue Carter, a 21-year-old cocktail waitress, was found in the bedroom of her garage apartment in Ada. She had been beaten, raped and suffocated. After five years of false starts and shoddy police work by the Ada police department, Williamson—along with his "drinking buddy", Dennis Fritz—were charged, tried and convicted of the rape and murder charges in 1988. Williamson was sentenced to death. Fritz was given a life sentence. Fritz's wife had been murdered seven years earlier and he was raising their only daughter when he was arrested.
Grisham's book describes the aggressive and misguided mission of the Ada police department and Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson to solve the mystery of Carter's murder. The police and prosecutor used forced "dream" confessions, unreliable witnesses, and flimsy evidence to convict Williamson and Fritz. Since a death penalty conviction automatically sets in motion a series of appeals, the Innocence Project aided Williamson's attorney, Mark Barrett, in exposing several glaring holes in the prosecution's case and the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses. Frank H. Seay, a U.S. District Court judge, ordered a retrial.
After suffering through a conviction and eleven years on death row, Williamson and Fritz were exonerated by DNA evidence and released on April 15, 1999. Williamson was the 78th inmate released from death row since 1973.
Williamson suffered deep and irreversible psychological damage during his incarceration and eventual stay on death row. For example, on September 22, 1994, he was five days away from being executed when his sentence was stayed by the court, following the filing of a habeas corpus petition. He was intermittently treated for manic depression, personality disorders, alcoholism and mild schizophrenia. It was later proven that he was indeed mentally ill and therefore was unfit to have been tried or sentenced to death in the first place. The State of Oklahoma, the city of Ada, and Pontotoc County officials never admitted any errors and threatened to re-arrest him.
Another man from Ada, Glen Gore, was eventually convicted of the original crime on June 24, 2003. He was sentenced to death but his sentence was overturned in August 2005. He was convicted at a second trial on June 21, 2006 and sentenced by Judge Landrith to life in prison without parole. This was required by law due to a jury deadlock on sentencing.
Williamson and Fritz sued and won a settlement for wrongful conviction of $500,000 in 2003 from the City of Ada, and an out-of-court settlement with the State of Oklahoma for an undisclosed amount. By 2004, Williamson was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and died on December 4, 2004 in a Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, nursing home. Fritz returned to Kansas City, where he lives with his daughter, Elizabeth as of 2006. In 2006, Fritz published his own account of being wrongly convicted in his book titled Journey toward Justice.
The book includes accounts (as subplots) of the false conviction, trial and sentencing of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot in the abduction, rape, and purported murder of Denice Haraway, as well as the false conviction of Greg Wilhoit in the rape and murder of his estranged wife, Kathy. At one time, all the men were incarcerated in the same death row. About two decades before Grisham's book, Ward and Fontenot's wrongful convictions were detailed in a book published in 1987 called The Dreams of Ada by Robert Mayer.