Saturday, May 31, 2008


On Thursday, May 22, noted authors’ Dennis Fritz and Sister Helen Prejean, teamed up together in Chicago, Illinois, to speak at the Saint Vincent Catholic Church at DePaul University—against the arbitrary use of the death penalty.
This long-awaited event represented a powerful combination of these two people (along with other key, death penalty abolitionists), whose sole objective(s) are to bring about the much-needed, greater awareness against the use of the death penalty.

Sister Helen Prejean is the author of Dead Man Walking, which was turned into a major motion picture in the middle 90’s. Her later released book, The Death of Innocents, is a powerful and poignant masterpiece, that exposes the in-depth atrocities of the death penalty.
Sister Helen is a true-to-heart abolitionist, and is speaking all over the county about her unyielding convictions against the unfair use of the death penalty. Sister Helen so eloquently combines her powerful presence with a witty sense of humor and directness that radiates her southern charm and intelligence. Her determination, dedication, and fortitude are deeply embedded in her plight to abolish the death penalty.

Dennis Fritz, who is the author of Journey Toward Justice—the co-companion book to John Grisham’s The Innocent Man— has been touring the country and speaking out about wrongful convictions, and the unfair administration of the death penalty. A major motion picture under the direction of George Clooney, is now underway about Dennis and Ronnie Williamson’ case. Both men were falsely convicted of 1st Degree Capital Murder, and spent 12 years behind bars before DNA testing finally freed them.

To meet Dennis, you would never think that he had suffered through a 12 year, never-ending nightmare, as such. His strength, fortitude, and courage are Dennis’ blessings to everyone around him. Today, his zest for life and liberty is greater than it has ever been. Dennis lives each and everyday of his life to the fullest, with a positive attitude and caring for other people—that is very rare in today’s society. Now, he finally gets to meet Sister Helen Prejean!
After Sister Helen and Dennis were picked up at the O’Hare International Airport by Elliot Slosar and Jennifer Bishop ( bulldog abolitionist’s for the State of Illinois ), they immediately had lunch at Giordano’s Pizza.
The excitement could be felt throughout the restaurant, as each of the dynamos for justice conversed and celebrated their long-awaited meeting. After lunch, the group traveled to the historic site of the St. Vincent DePaul Catholic Church, where Sister Helen and Dennis would speak that evening to an overwhelming crowd of supporters.

While Sister Helen was speaking to a group of DePaul University students, Dennis got a wonderful tour of Chicago by the one-and-only, Jennifer Bishop. Afterwards, everyone met for dinner at a local nearby restaurant.

Dennis got to meet other powerful abolitionists such as Andrea Lyon and her son, Will, Jennifer’s sister, Jeanne, Private Detective, Mort Smith, Dominick Fortunato, and Bill Bishop—Jennifer’s husband.

The speaking event was a total success. Dennis spoke first, describing the horrifying events of his false incarceration. His very vivid accounts of the very painful experiences that he received in prison captured everyone’s attention—bringing tears to everyone’s eyes.
First and foremost, Dennis gave special credit to the Lord, and then (to his family ---- Mother, Aunt, and Daughter ) for giving him back his precious freedom that had been so unjustly stripped from him. Dennis said, “I am a happy man who has grown so much in the past year or so. I feel a renewed confidence and composure when I share my story with everyone.

Life is short, but we must live every day as if it were our last.” With that said, Dennis introduced Sister Helen Prejean, who immediately touched everyone’s heart through her powerful presence and speaking abilities.
Sister Helen described her monumental efforts in working as an author, abolitionist, and speaker, to abolish the horrid death penalty around the country. She spoke of the countless death row inmates that she had counseled shortly before their executions. Her strength of mind and courage came across to the audience loud and clear. Her years of first hand experiences in fighting the many battles within the legal system ( to abolish the death penalty ) greatly accentuated and fortified everyone’s feelings and hopes that the cruel punishment of death would be outlawed—forever!
Her mannerisms, gestures, and outright determination, brought forth feelings of admiration and love for her. May God bless you, forever, Sister Helen.
The following day, Dennis participated in a book singing at the DePaul, Barnes and Noble bookstore. Dennis met and talked with a great number of people while selling his books.
He learned that even the store manager, Debra, had worked for 6 years as an attorney with the capital death penalty division. Her presence added greatly to Dennis’ spiritual inspiration to personally share his story with every customer within the bookstore. Dennis said that he has fond memories of the wonderful people that he had met, and, so enjoyed the magnificent city of Chicago.

He said, “it is very emotionally draining and somewhat stressful, to go back and re-live the accounts of his nightmare conviction out-of- hell. But, it is worth every ounce of energy that I have to give, to help bring forth the change and education that everyone needs and deserves to learn about.”


Friday, May 16, 2008

Innocence Project Benefit, A Celebration of Freedom and Justice

Photo left to right: Dennis Fritz - John Grisham - Barry Scheck - Janet Difiore - Peter Neufeld
Exonerated man and victim’s family are reunited at the Innocence Project second annual benefit.

Here is a great story from the Innocence Project about the event:

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 he 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.”

Read the full story here.

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
Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson's . cases.
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
“Common Interests.”)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Dennis Fritz Dances with Debra Sue Carter's Mother Fritz was exonerated for Carter's murder

At an Innocence Project dinner, Peggy Sanders danced with Dennis Fritz, who was sent to prison for her daughter’s murder.

In the Face of Great Loss, Embracing Innocence

Published:New York Times May 10, 2008
The woman was seated just two chairs away at the table, but the man had to speak over music that filled the room.

At an Innocence Project dinner, Peggy Sanders danced with Dennis Fritz, who was sent to prison for her daughter’s murder.
“Peggy,” he said.

For a minute, Peggy Sanders did not hear her name being called. She is 65 and was visiting New York this week for the first time from a small town in Oklahoma to attend a big benefit dinner.

As a young virtuoso played piano, Ms. Sanders swayed slightly in her chair.

“Peggy,” the man said.

She glanced up.

“Want to dance?” he asked.

She giggled, the way an aunt might at a rambunctious nephew who tries to coax her onto the dance floor at a wedding. But she did not take his question seriously. Of the 600 people at the dinner, no one else made a move to dance: The chair backs had just inches of clearance.

Even so, the man who asked the question, Dennis Fritz, needed no more encouragement. He edged around the table and took her hand. The floor may have been crowded, but the stage was wide open. He led her to the stairs. She climbed up, a crown of white hair over her smile. Mr. Fritz wore jeans and a sport coat.

She lifted her hands and put them on his back and shoulder. They drifted together and gently twirled, a dance salvaged from a trail of wreckage that stretches back to 1982.

Peggy Sanders first saw Dennis Fritz 21 years ago, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit as he was brought into the courthouse in Ada, Okla., to face charges that he had murdered Ms. Sanders’s daughter Debbie Carter. She was 21, a waitress who had just gotten her own apartment, when she was killed in December 1982.

“I hated him so bad,” Ms. Sanders said. “Why did they do that to my little girl?”

Mr. Fritz, a high school science teacher, was spared the death penalty by one vote and got life without parole. A co-defendant, Ron Williamson, once a star pitching prospect, was sentenced to die. He came within five days of execution.

Neither man had anything to do with the crime: They were convicted on the word of jailhouse snitches who bartered their stories for sweetheart plea deals and by pseudoscientific testimony that falsely linked them to 17 hairs found at the crime scene. In 1999, lawyers in Oklahoma and with the Innocence Project in New York arranged DNA tests that cleared Mr. Fritz and Mr. Williamson. The tests implicated another man, whose DNA was matched to the hair and semen found on the victim’s body.

“They were railroaded,” Ms. Sanders said. The other man is now serving a life sentence for the murder.

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.

The elders of Mr. Williamson’s family church refused to let the two men use the hall for a press conference after their release. The Williamson family received threatening calls. Their pastor pointedly did not acknowledge Mr. Williamson from the pulpit when he came for his first church service after leaving prison.

Then Mr. Williamson, a high school baseball star drafted in the second round in 1971 by the Oakland Athletics, made a call to Ms. Sanders.

“He said, ‘This is Ron Williamson; I did not kill your daughter,’ ” Ms. Sanders recalled. “I said, ‘I know, hon.’ ”

Ms. Sanders, who married as a teenager and quickly had three children, struggled for years after the murder of Debbie. Yet she embraced Mr. Williamson, Mr. Fritz and their families after the men were exonerated.

“I had to do it for my daughter,” she said. “They had become victims of this, too. People still don’t believe they’re innocent. I was just at a funeral, and a woman come up to me and said, ‘I know them two done it.’ I said, ‘No, they didn’t.’ ”

Mr. Williamson, who suffered from psychiatric problems, died in 2004. He is the subject of John Grisham’s book “The Innocent Man.” Mr. Fritz, 58, now lives in Missouri, and has also written a book, “Journey Toward Justice.” Christy Sheppard, a cousin of the murder victim, has become an advocate for the establishment of commissions to look into wrongful convictions.

All of them — the family of Debbie Carter, the family of Mr. Williamson, Mr. Grisham and Mr. Fritz — sat at one table Thursday evening for a dinner benefiting the Innocence Project.

Until an impulse hit Dennis Fritz, and he led his friend Peggy Sanders onto the stage, and they danced where everyone could see them.