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Execute the Innocent

Two murders, a town on the verge of rioting, and an ambitious DA almost ended the life of an innocent man.

"There's always such a rush to judgment. It makes a fair trial hard to get," John Grisham has said. In his one and only true crime book, The Innocent Man, he proved that this was true. In that book, Grisham explores the case that saw Ron Williamson nearly being executed for crimes that he didn't commit. As the hours clocked down, his life literally hung in the balance because someone wanted a conviction, no matter what the cost was.

It began with big dreams of playing pro baseball for Ron Williamson. From all accounts, he had the talent to make it big and enjoy the fruits of celebrity. That is until he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. December 8, 1982 (as of this writing nearly 36 years ago!), cocktail waitress Debra Sue Carter was murdered and raped. Her corpse was found by a friend in her bedroom. She bound naked and gagged, with the word DIE written across her body in blood.

Even more disturbing was that the assailant had used a ketchup bottle to violate her. A source said that's not the only weird part of the crime scene, "her crazed killer had scrawled messages all over her body and the walls of her flat using tomato sauce and nail polish.” How did no one hear a woman screaming or notice that something wasn't right?

People in Ada, Missouri soon began to suspect that this was the work of Ron Williamson and his buddy Dennis Fritz. There seems to be no reason for the suspicion, other than them possibly flirting with Carter and having reputations as cads. But in a small town that is enough and can lead to mob hysteria that there are murderers among them. Even without evidence.

There was also the fact that Williamson had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, among a slew of other mental health issues. Some speculate Williamson had a substance abuse problem but other than a more occasional drinking bender, there is nothing to substantiate that.

A bit more damning is the fact Carter allegedly told friends that Williamson and Fritz “made her nervous." Though no one has ever elaborated on why the men made the waitress nervous. It could be surmised that they hit on her, and the advances were not welcome, but there is no evidence to back that up.

Despite being the only suspects in Carter's murder, Williamson and Fritz were never tried because the prosecutor could not build a case. This was even though the men had no alibis for the night in question, and there was mounting pressure for a conviction from the community.

A big break happened when Williamson was arrested for forging checksf—five years after Carter's murder. The prosecutors then began to allege that while sitting in his cell, Williamson became chatty and confessed to killing Carter. After the alleged confession, Dennis Fritz was rearrested, and he too began to spill his guts to his cellmate, which culminated in an admission. Two confessions to cellmates from two alleged murderers? Nobody thought that this was weird? Or at least thought to check into it a little more?

The story becomes a little wilder when police admitted that one of Ron Williamson's alleged confessions to them was a dream that he had been talking about. According to the Ada Police Department, every person who has dreamt about having sex with Channing Tatum or Matthew Stafford really did have sex with them. That's how that works, right?

Faulty DNA tests also helped to build the straw man case against Williamson and Fritz. Hairs that were found at Carter's apartment were matched to the suspects. The problem with that is the tests that were used are not always accurate. The Innocence Project said, “though we now know that this type of hair analysis is not a validated forensic science practice." The Innocence Project is a non-profit organization that helps to prove innocent prisoners did not commit the crimes that they were convicted for.

After a dramatic trial, Fritz and Williamson were both found to be guilty of Carter's murder. Fritz was sent to prison for the rest of his life, while Williamson was sent to death row. There doesn't seem to be a reason for the disparity in the sentencing, other than Williamson allegedly dreamt about committing a crime and Fritz didn't.

So what finally proved the men's innocence? DNA. During the appeals process, the men both had more DNA tests conducted, and it turned out that the hairs found didn't match their's after all. The strands did match those of the witness, Glen Gore, who said Williamson had been arguing with Carter the night she was killed. How could the police have known that with rock-solid evidence like a dream?

Williamson was released from prison in 1999 and faced psychological problems for the rest of his life. He died in 2004 from cirrhosis of the liver. He did see Gore convicted of the crime that almost sent him to his grave, though that was of little comfort to him. Williamson spent the rest of his years fighting against the death penalty.

Fritz, on the other hand, is still alive and mad about the whole situation. As he should be. He told the PBS show Frontline, “I was cheated of watching my daughter grow and flower into a woman. No amount of money on the face of the Earth could even begin to make an amend for what happened.”

Boom goes the dynamite. 

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