Sunday, October 25, 2009

Dennis Fritz The Other Innocent Man

In 1982, 21-year-old Debra Sue Carter was brutally murdered in the small town of Ada, Okla.

In 1988, former Lee’s Summit resident Dennis Fritz and his acquaintance Ron Williamson were charged and convicted of the murder. Fritz was sentenced to life in prison and Williamson received the death penalty­­.

On April 15, 1999, Fritz and Williamson were exonerated by DNA evidence.

In 2006 John Grisham released his first non-fiction book based on the events of the case, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.” And shortly after, on Oct. 6, 2006, Dennis Fritz released his own memoir about the case, “Journey Toward Justice.” On Saturday, Sept. 12, Fritz will host a book signing from 2 to 6 p.m. at Maxwell’s, 301 S.E. Douglas in downtown Lee’s Summit.

Revisiting the past

Although Fritz had already written a little about his trial, his appeals and his conviction while in prison, once he was released he wasn’t eager to revisit that portion of his life.

“Anyone who has spent several years in a penitentiary — a hard and violent place —will walk out with post traumatic stress,” Fritz told the Journal last Friday.

And he just wanted to get on with his life.

But after five years had passed, and he had adjusted to life after prison, he began to work with Grisham on “The Innocent Man.”

“I told myself, if John (Grisham) can write about my case, then so can I,” Fritz said.

But writing his own story proved to be more difficult than he had anticipated.

“It was tremendously difficult,” he said. “When I started writing my book I began to be revisited by my thoughts and fears from the trial.”

Fritz said he became almost paranoid again.

“Whenever I saw a cop car or heard sirens drive by my house I was afraid they would pull in,” he said. And Fritz had every reason to be afraid. The arresting officers and the former district attorney who prosecuted him were still telling media outlets they believed Fritz and Williamson were still guilty.

“There’s no statute of limitations on murder,” Fritz said. “I was fearful I was going to go back.”

In 2003, DNA evidence convicted another Ada resident, Glen Gore, for Carter’s murder. But after his death sentence was overturned in 2005, he was sentenced to life without parole in 2006.

The Never-ending Case

Although Gore had been convicted and both Grisham’s and Fritz’s books had been written and become widely popular, Fritz wasn’t done with his journey through the courts system. Only this time it was in civil court.

In 2007, former Pontotoc County District Attorney, William Peterson, and former Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation employees, Gary Rogers and Melvin Hett, sued Fritz, Grisham and their publishers for libel.

“They made a mistake and even now, they don’t want to admit it,” Fritz said about the investigators.

In September 2008, a judge dismissed the lawsuit, calling the petition’s claims “not plausible,” but Fritz said the decision was appealed.

“From the time of her death in 1982 until now, 27 years have passed by and this is still going on,” Fritz said.

Working for the innocent

Although Fritz spent more than 11 years in prison for a crime he did not commit and is still entangled in a civil lawsuit regarding the same case, Fritz isn’t too bothered by his past these days.

“Especially after spending 12 years in a hard and violent penitentiary, nothing bothers me too much.” Fritz said. “Things are meant to happen for a reason and I was sacrificed to bring about reform.”

In fact, Fritz said his case is one of the leading cases used to expose corruptness in the legal system.

“I want to focus on bringing awareness, and I use my book for that,” he said.

Now Fritz serves as a board member for the Innocence Project, the same organization he contacted while in prison.

With the help of the organization, DNA samples found at the crime scene were re-tested and none of it was found to match DNA from either Williamson or Fritz.

Now Fritz helps the same organization that helped him. He frequently makes appearances to talk about his case and works to raise money for the organization so more innocent prisoners can be exonerated.
Source Miranda Wycoff, Journal Staff