The Innocent Man is yet another compelling-yet-bleak look at the broken American justice system, courtesy of Netflix.
The six-episode series digs deep into a complex timeline comprising two similar murders in Ada, OK, in the 1980s, with the legal proceedings for both crimes spanning into the 2000s. Although the identity of the true killer of the show’s second murder, that of cashier Denice Haraway, remains a bit of a mystery — Ada natives Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot were sentenced to life in prison for her death, but maintain their innocence — the rape and strangulation of Debbie Carter is solved by the end of John Grisham and director Clay Tweel’s docuseries.
Warning: Spoilers and graphic language about the events depicted in The Innocent Man ahead.
On Dec. 7, 1982, 21-year-old Debra “Debbie” Sue Carter drove home, where she lived alone, after working a late-night shift as a waitress at the Coachlight Bar and Restaurant in Ada. An unknown assailant knocked on her door and proceeded to force their way in, raping and strangling Carter with her own belt and the cord of an electrical blanket. The crime scene was not only violent, but very much staged, with the murderer writing “DIE” on Carter’s back in ketchup, as well as other words across the walls. The following morning, Carter was found dead by her friend who lived nearby, who spotted Carter’s car still in the driveway and shattered glass on her front porch.
No suspects were pursued for quite some time, but the lead detective on the case, Dennis Smith, insinuated that the police knew who did it, but they just didn’t have enough evidence to nail them. (Smith’s daughter was also a friend of Debbie’s, so he had a personal connection to the case.) In March 1983, Ron Williamson, Carter’s neighbor who had psychological problems and multiple past arrests, was interviewed by police investigators (Smith, Gary Rogers, Mike Baskin, and Chris Ross). According to an eyewitness they spoke to the night after Carter’s death named Glen Gore, Williamson was reportedly harassing Carter at the Coachlight before she finished her shift. A few months later, in June 1983, Williamson’s close friend Dennis Fritz was also interviewed by police in connection to the murder. Both denied having anything to do with the crime, and no arrests were made.
Fast forward nearly five years later, to the Spring of 1987. With no arrests in the case and some of the investigators nearing retirement, the pressure to find Carter’s killer began to heat up. The police asked Carter’s mother, Peggy, if she’d sign off on allowing them to exhume her daughter’s body. The police said it was because they were reexamining a bloody palm print that was found on the wall of Carter’s apartment the morning after she was killed. Not long after that, in early May, Williamson was arrested after telling the police that he had a dream of going to Carter’s door, breaking in, and raping and killing her (even though many of the details in the dream didn’t match up to the actual crime scene).
The day before the prosecution would have had to drop any remaining charges against Fritz, an inmate who he was paired with in prison years earlier came forward and said she heard him confess to the murder. The “jailhouse snitch” gave a two-hour taped interview, including details about Carter’s murder she allegedly heard from Fritz. Fritz was arrested, went to trial, and was sentenced to life in prison in April 1998 based on testimony from an analyst who stated 11 pubic hairs and two head hairs from the crime scene were “consistent” with Fritz’s hair. “This means they match,” the analyst explained. He also presented highly misleading findings about the semen they examined from the scene.
A few weeks after Fritz’s conviction, on April 28, Williamson had a trial of his own and was sentenced to the death penalty. The district attorney, Bill Peterson, made the case that Williamson got into a fight with Carter at the bar the night of her death, corroborated by eyewitness Gore. However, Williamson refuted this by saying he had an alibi; he said he was home the entire night and that his mom could vouch for his whereabouts. His mother had a receipt from renting movies they watched that night and also an entry in her journal since she kept fastidious notes about her daily life. Despite submitting both to the police, the journal and receipt ended up going mysteriously missing.
Between 1994 and 1999, Fritz tried to appeal his sentencing multiple times but was denied. He later contacted the Innocence Project for help, which put him on the radar of author John Grisham (who went on to write The Innocent Man about the case). During these years, it was discovered that the physical evidence from the crime was going to be tested due to appeals filed by Williamson’s legal team, so Fritz filed an injunction to ensure the evidence would not be consumed until the cases were joined and proper DNA testing was conducted. In the Spring of 1999, new DNA evidence came to light, proving that Fritz and Williamson didn’t actually kill Carter. On April 15, 1999, both men were set free and exonerated of their crimes. (Williamson was within five days of being executed.)
In 2000, Gore, the state’s eyewitness for Williamson’s and Fritz’s trials, became the main suspect when it was discovered that his semen matched what was found at the crime scene. Gore had gone to school with Carter in Ada for all 12 years, but they weren’t in the same group of friends. He also had a history of harassing Carter over the years, a fact that Carter’s sisters told police (and which the police proceeded to ignore). It was in fact him who had been arguing with Carter at the Coachlight the night of her death, not Williamson (who wasn’t even there, seeing as he was home with his mother). Gore was in prison for an unrelated crime when he found out he was the prime suspect, and briefly escaped when he stole an officer’s car during his work release program. He later turned himself in.
When the trial began in 2003, it was confirmed that he was the last person seen with Carter in the parking lot of the Coachlight. Despite being interviewed by the police the night after her death, they never bothered to take his fingerprints, saliva, or hair samples. When the new trial for Gore began and the DNA was finally proven to be a match, the jury found him guilty. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. His death sentence was overturned in 2005, and in 2006 a second trial rendered him sentenced to life without parole, instead.
In 2018, Gore remains in prison. Fritz is also still alive, but now lives in a nursing home due to a traumatic brain injury he received after getting into a near-fatal car accident. He regularly spends time with his daughter, Elizabeth Clinton, who visits him as much as she can. Williamson, who continued to suffer from psychiatric problems after being exonerated, died in his nursing home of cirrhosis at the age of 51 in 2009.