While jazz pianist Jonathan Batiste played “What a Wonderful World,” at the Innocence Project benefit, “A Celebration of Freedom and Justice,” on May 7 in New York City, exoneree Dennis Fritz asked 65-year-old Peggy Carter Sanders to take the stage with him and dance. Fritz was sentenced to life in prison and was wrongfully incarcerated for 11 years for the murder of Sanders’ daughter, Debra Sue Carter of Ada, Oklahoma. Fritz and his co-defendant Ron Williamson developed a relationship with Carter’s family after their exoneration in 1999. Both men were exonerated through DNA testing and with the help of the Innocence Project.
Williamson passed away in 2004, but his sisters Renee Simmons and Annette Hudson also attended the benefit. Williamson’s family, Carter’s family, and Fritz came to New York from all around the country to join the Innocence Project in honoring John Grisham for his best selling book, The Innocent Man, which tells the story of Williamson’s wrongful conviction. Fritz shared a table at the benefit with two of Carter’s relatives—her cousin, Christy Sheppard, and her mother Peggy Carter Sanders.
A recent New York Times column by Jim Dwyer looks at the poignant moment last week when Fritz and Sanders danced as 600 Innocence Project supporters looked on. The column discusses the friendship forged between the two wrongfully convicted men and the mother of the victim—despite some people’s unwillingness to accept that a mistake had been made in the case:
“Ms. Sanders saw it plain. All around her, though, people refused to rewrite the ending to her daughter’s murder, clinging to the belief that Mr. Fritz and Mr. Williamson somehow had been part of the killing, a spurning of reality so common that it has practically become an epidemic as DNA tests, year in and out, clear the wrongfully convicted.”
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Fritz was one of a dozen exonerees who attended the benefit. Also honored was the law firm Mayer Brown, for its collaboration with the Innocence Project in reforming eyewitness identification procedures.
Learn more about how the Innocence Project is working with victims and their families, including Christy Sheppard and Peggy Carter Sanders, to improve the criminal justice system. (See page 10 of this PDF for