Ten years ago today, on April 15, 1999, Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson were released and exonerated after being incarcerated in Oklahoma prisons for 11 years for the rape and murder of a 21-year-old waitress. Williamson had served on death row and once came within five days of execution; Fritz had been serving a life sentence. The story of the two men has reached millions around the world through John Grisham’s first nonfiction book, “The Innocent Man,” which focuses on the case. Grisham is now a member of the Innocence Project Board of Directors and speaks frequently about wrongful convictions and criminal justice reform.
Fritz and Williamson’s wrongful convictions were based in part on the false testimony of jailhouse snitches and the misleading characterization of the biological evidence in the case. A forensic analyst also testified about unvalidated forensics allegedly linking the men to the crime, including hairs from the crime scene that the analyst said were “consistent” with Fritz’s hair. The analyst also gave misleading testimony about serology evidence from the crime scene.
Several years after his conviction, with his appeals exhausted, Fritz turned to the Innocence Project for help. The Innocence Project worked with local attorneys to secure DNA testing of the biological evidence from the crime scene. The results proved that neither Fritz nor Williamson had committed the crime, and implicated Glen Gore, a central witness for the state in Fritz's trial. Gore was subsequently convicted of the rape and murder and is serving a sentence of life without parole.
Since his release from prison, Fritz has traveled widely, raising awareness of wrongful convictions and advocating for post-conviction access to DNA testing in those states without such a law. His recent appearance before the South Dakota legislature with law professor Christine Hutton was instrumental in the passage of the new law in that state. He has also written a book, “Journey Toward Justice,” recounting his arrest, his trial, and the years of imprisonment during which he assiduously maintained his innocence and worked on his case.
Sadly, Ron Williamson passed away five years after his release on December 4, 2004.
Other Anniversaries this week:
, Mississippi (Served 10 years, Exonerated 4/14/08)
Victor Larue Thomas
, Texas (Served 15 years, Exonerated 4/17/02)