John Grisham’s first and, to date, only work of nonfiction, is an exploration of small town justice gone terribly awry.
Ron Williamson was the first player chosen from the State Oklahoma in the major league draft of 1971. Having grown up a local softball star in little Ada, Oklahoma, he signed with the storied Oakland A’s and left his hometown in pursuit of big league glory. But six years later he was back in Ada, his dreams derailed by a bad arm and bad habits — booze, drugs, and women. He began to exhibit signs of mental illness. He was unable to hold a job and moved in with his mother. He slept twenty hours a day on her sofa.
On December 7, 1982, Debra Sue Carter, a 21-year-old cocktail waitress, was savagely raped and murdered. The crime remained unsolved for five years. Despite evidence pointing to another suspect, the Ada police suspected Ron and his friend, Dennis Fritz, from the outset. They were finally arrested in 1987 and charged with capital murder.
The prosecution’s case was founded solely on junk science, testimony from jailhouse snitches and convicts, and no physical evidence. Nonetheless, tried separately, Dennis Fritz was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, and shortly thereafter, Ron was proclaimed guilty and sentenced to death.
If you believe that in America you are innocent until proven guilty, The Innocent Man will shock you. If you believe in the death penalty, The Innocent Man will make you reconsider your opinion.
If you believe the criminal justice system is fair, The Innocent Man will infuriate you.
In The Innocent Man – Murder & Injustice in a Small Town, published in 2006, best-selling author John Grisham details a travesty of justice that should never have occurred in the United States.
In the little town of Ada, Oklahoma, the murder of a beautiful young woman, Debra Sue Carter, led corrupt police officers and a morally reprehensible District Attorney to secure convictions for the crime at any cost. In this case, the cost was the Constitutional rights and due process guaranteed to criminal defendants.
Carter’s body was discovered in her apartment. It was a brutal crime — the type that doesn’t occur in quiet little American towns where all of the residents know each other. The murder shocked, horrified, and frightened the community. And the police were understandably outraged and determined to catch Carter’s killer.
“If I wrote The Innocent Man as a novel, folks probably wouldn’t believe it.” ~ Author John Grisham
Grisham deftly chronicles the grim story of how Ron Williamson, who had grown up in Ada, spent 12 years on condemned row, living in deplorable conditions and denied treatment for the mental illness about which the court and prison officials were well aware. When it became clear when Ron was just a youngster that he was a talented athlete with a passion for baseball. He was the charming youngest child of hard-working parents and doted on by his two older sisters, Annette and Renee. Ron’s father, in particular, made great effort to ensure that Ron had everything he needed to succeed, including expensive baseball gloves that the family could ill afford. The goal was for Ron to secure a career in major league baseball.
But Ron discovered, after being drafted by the Oakland A’s and promptly squandering his signing bonus, that advancing from the minor to major leagues was not neither assured nor easy. Being on the road with the minor league team, earning little money, he adopted a destructive and undisciplined lifestyle that included drinking and women. His performance in the minor leagues was unremarkable and he was cut several times. Eventually, with an injured arm that precluded him from playing, he returned home to Ada. He was in denial, however. He talked about returning to baseball after his arm healed. But he was unable to maintain employment, drinking heavily, and showing signs of severe mental illness. Several run-ins with the law followed, including DUI convictions and a stint in jail for check forging.
Grisham notes it has never been made clear why the Ada police turned their attention to Ron and his friend, Dennis Fritz, when another man, Glen Gore, was last seen with Carter at the bar where she worked. It was reported that she was afraid of Gore and attempting to get away from him. Conflicting reports of her shoving him away from her before getting into her vehicle and driving off were ignored, and the police failed to interview or collect blood, semen, and hair from that individual. Rather, they kept Ron and Dennis in their sights.
The only true crime book ever drafted by Grisham is as fast-paced and spell-binding as his fictional works. Meticulously researched, The Innocent Man – Murder & Injustice in a Small Town is as much a legal thriller as any of Grisham’s fictional tales. Told without any attempt to veil his anger and repulsion, Grisham recounts the unethical conduct of the police and District Attorney. A former trial lawyer, Grisham describes the utter incompetence and callousness of the judge who presided over the trials of Ron and Dennis, as well as Ron’s blind defense counsel, who was utterly exasperated with Ron’s outbursts and disruptive behavior. His own attorney, appointed by the court because Ron was deemed indigent, never bothered to move the court to determine whether Ron was mentally competent to stand trial, even though by that time Ron’s mental illness was well documented. Indeed, Ron had been ruled incompetent to stand trial in the check forging case. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, and rarely complied with treatment by taking the medications prescribed to him. Sometime later, schizophrenia was added to his diagnosis.
The trials were a mockery of justice, and both Ron and Dennis were convicted for the murder of Carter despite their ceaseless protestations of innocence. The prosecution had no physical evidence, but relied upon fraudulent testimony from jailhouse snitches and exaggerated and wholly unsubstantiated claims that hairs found at the murder scene were a “match” to those collected from Ron and Dennis. In fact, no such claims relating to hair were scientifically credible. And in the years since, many convictions secured on the strength of hair evidence have been overturned. Among countless other errors, the judge failed to timely rule on the defense’s claim that exculpatory evidence had been wrongfully withheld by the prosecution, rather than turned over to the defense as is required by the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland, until after the conclusion of the trial.
“Something is really rotten at the core of this case.” ~ Attorney & DNA Expert Barry Scheck
Grisham also explores the convictions of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot for the 1984 murder of Denice Haraway, also despite a complete lack of physical evidence and based, in part, on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who figured in the convictions of Ron and Dennis. What linked the two crimes? The fact that confessions based, in part, on dreams that the men claimed to have had about the murders were admitted into evidence. In the case of Tommy Ward, he was interrogated for at least six hours before he finally decided to give the police what they wanted in the form of a confession based upon a dream he had about how the murder occurred. At the time he was and Karl Fontenot were convicted, Haraway’s body had not been discovered. When it was found several months later, none of the details provided by Tommy bore any relationship to reality, including the fact that he claimed she was stabbed but the subsequent forensic examination showed that she died from a single gunshot to the back of the head. Both men won re-trials only to be again convicted, and Tommy Ward remained incarcerated as of 2017.
Ron’s appeals in the Oklahoma courts were summarily rejected. Were it not for principled, dedicated federal appellate court attorneys who painstakingly reviewed the record below and ascertained that Ron’s Constitutional rights were violated, he would have been executed. Once he was granted a new trial, Barry Sheck, an expert on DNA evidence most famous for his involvement in the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Innocence Project also became involved. Eventually, both convictions were overturned, and Ron and Dennis were freed. For Ron, however, who still suffered from mental illness, and the resultant inability to find stability and sobriety, there was no happy ending. He died of cirrhosis in 2004, after being exonerated and released from prison in 1999.
From the tragic true story, Grisham weaves a compelling, cautionary tale about the ways in which the justice system was manipulated and corrupted by unscrupulous and blundering police, attorneys, and two judges. Grisham observes, “We just don’t expect the police to play dirty. It’s all about winning. And along the way, if the truth gets blurred or twisted, that’s too bad.”
Ultimately, the story may not dissuade supporters of the death penalty. But at a minimum, The Innocent Man – Murder & Injustice in a Small Town illustrates why proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the appropriate legal standard in criminal proceedings. And it proves that capital murder cases are rightfully subject to automatic appeal to ensure that the evidence in support of conviction is indisputable. If there is to be a death penalty in America, no innocent person must ever be executed. In the words of U.S. District Court Judge Frank H. Seay, who overturned Ron’s conviction and granted him a new trial, “God help us, if ever in this great country we turn our heads while those who have not had fair trials are executed. That almost happened in this case.”
The Innocent Man – Murder & Injustice in a Small Town has been adapted into a six-part documentary by NetFlix that includes archival footage and interviews with Grisham, Ron’s appellate defense team, his sister, Renee, Debbie Carter’s mother, and Barry Scheck.
Excerpt from The Innocent Man – Murder & Injustice in a Small Town
The rolling hills of southeast Oklahoma stretch from Norman across to Arkansas and show little evidence of the vast deposits of crude oil that were once beneath them. Some old rigs dot the countryside; the active ones churn on, pumping out a few gallons with each slow turn and prompting a passerby to ask if the effort is really worth it. Many have simply given up, and sit motionless amid the fields as corroding reminders of the glory days of gushers and wildcatters and instant fortunes.
There are rigs scattered through the farmland around Ada, an old oil town of sixteen thousand with a college and a county courthouse. The rigs are idle, though–the oil is gone. Money is now made in Ada by the hour in factories and feed mills and on pecan farms.
Downtown Ada is a busy place. There are no empty or boarded-up buildings on Main Street. The merchants survive, though much of their business has moved to the edge of town. The cafés are crowded at lunch.
The Pontotoc County Courthouse is old and cramped and full of lawyers and their clients. Around it is the usual hodgepodge of county buildings and law offices. The jail, a squat, windowless bomb shelter, was for some forgotten reason built on the courthouse lawn. The methamphetamine scourge keeps it full.
Main Street ends at the campus of East Central University, home to four thousand students, many of them commuters. The school pumps life into the community with a fresh supply of young people and a faculty that adds some diversity to southeastern Oklahoma.
Few things escape the attention of the Ada Evening News, a lively daily that covers the region and works hard to compete with The Oklahoman, the state’s largest paper. There’s usually world and national news on the front page, then state and regional, then the important items–high school sports, local politics, community calendars, and obituaries.
The people of Ada and Pontotoc County are a pleasant blend of small-town southerners and independent westerners. The accent could be from east Texas or Arkansas, with flat i’s and other long vowels. It’s Chickasaw country. Oklahoma has more Native Americans than any other state, and after a hundred years of mixing many of the white folks have Indian blood. The stigma is fading fast; indeed, there is now pride in the heritage.
The Bible Belt runs hard through Ada. The town has fifty churches from a dozen strains of Christianity. They are active places, and not just on Sundays. There is one Catholic church, and one for the Episcopalians, but no temple or synagogue. Most folks are Christians, or claim to be, and belonging to a church is rather expected. A person’s social status is often determined by religious affiliation.
With sixteen thousand people, Ada is considered large for rural Oklahoma, and it attracts factories and discount stores. Workers and shoppers make the drive from several counties. It is eighty miles south and east of Oklahoma City, and three hours north of Dallas. Everybody knows somebody working or living in Texas.
The biggest source of local pride is the quarter-horse “bidness.” Some of the best horses are bred by Ada ranchers. And when the Ada High Cougars win another state title in football, the town struts for years.
It’s a friendly place, filled with people who speak to strangers and always to each other and are anxious to help anyone in need. Kids play on shaded front lawns. Doors are left open during the day. Teenagers cruise through the night causing little trouble.
Had it not been for two notorious murders in the early 1980s, Ada would have gone unnoticed by the world. And that would have been just fine with the good folks of Pontotoc County.
As if by some unwritten city ordinance, most of the nightclubs and watering holes in Ada were on the periphery of the town, banished to the edges to keep the riffraff and their mischief away from the better folks. The Coachlight was one such place, a cavernous metal building with bad lighting, cheap beer, jukeboxes, a weekend band, a dance floor, and outside a sprawling gravel parking lot where dusty pickups greatly outnumbered sedans. Its regulars were what you would expect–factory workers looking for a drink before heading home, country boys looking for fun, late-night twenty-somethings, and the dance and party crowd there to listen to live music. Vince Gill and Randy Travis passed through early in their careers.
It was a popular and busy place, employing many part-time bartenders and bouncers and cocktail waitresses. One was Debbie Carter, a twenty-one-year-old local girl who’d graduated from Ada High School a few years earlier and was enjoying the single life. She held two other part-time jobs and also worked occasionally as a babysitter. Debbie had her own car and lived by herself in a three-room apartment above a garage on Eighth Street, near East Central University. She was a pretty girl, darkhaired, slender, athletic, popular with the boys, and very independent.
Her mother, Peggy Stillwell, worried that she was spending too much time at the Coachlight and other clubs. She had not raised her daughter to live such a life; in fact, Debbie had been raised in the church. After high school, though, she began partying and keeping later hours. Peggy objected and they fought occasionally over the new lifestyle. Debbie became determined to have her independence. She found an apartment, left home, but remained very close to her mother.
On the night of December 7, 1982, Debbie was working at the Coachlight, serving drinks and watching the clock. It was a slow night, and she asked her boss if she could go off-duty and hang out with some friends. He did not object, and she was soon sitting at a table having a drink with Gina Vietta, a close friend from high school, and some others. Another friend from high school, Glen Gore, stopped by and asked Debbie to dance. She did, but halfway through the song she suddenly stopped and angrily walked away from Gore. Later, in the ladies’ restroom, she said she would feel safer if one of her girlfriends would spend the night at her place, but she did not say what worried her.
The Coachlight began closing early, around 12:30 a.m., and Gina Vietta invited several of their group to have another drink at her apartment. Most said yes; Debbie, though, was tired and hungry and just wanted to go home. They drifted out of the club, in no particular hurry.
Several people saw Debbie in the parking lot chatting with Glen Gore as the Coachlight was shutting down. Tommy Glover knew Debbie well because he worked with her at a local glass company. He also knew Gore. As he was getting in his pickup truck to leave, he saw Debbie open the driver’s door of her car. Gore appeared from nowhere, they talked for a few seconds, then she pushed him away.
Mike and Terri Carpenter both worked at the Coachlight, he as a bouncer, she as a waitress. As they were walking to their car, they passed Debbie’s. She was in the driver’s seat, talking to Glen Gore, who was standing beside her door. The Carpenters waved good-bye and kept walking. A month earlier Debbie had told Mike that she was afraid of Gore because of his temper.
Toni Ramsey worked at the club as a shoe-shine girl. The oil business was still booming in Oklahoma in 1982. There were plenty of nice boots being worn around Ada. Someone had to shine them, and Toni picked up some much-needed cash. She knew Gore well. As Toni left that night, she saw Debbie sitting behind the wheel of her car. Gore was on the passenger’s side, crouching by the open door, outside the car. They were talking in what seemed to be a civilized manner. Nothing appeared to be wrong.
Gore, who didn’t own a car, had bummed a ride to the Coachlight with an acquaintance named Ron West, arriving there around 11:30. West ordered beers and settled in to relax while Gore made the rounds. He seemed to know everyone. When last call was announced, West grabbed Gore and asked him if he still needed a ride. Yes, Gore said, so West went to the parking lot and waited for him. A few minutes passed, then Gore appeared in a rush and got in.
They decided they were hungry, so West drove to a downtown café called the Waffler, where they ordered a quick breakfast. West paid for the meal, just as he’d paid for the drinks at the Coachlight. He had started the night at Harold’s, another club where he’d gone looking for some business associates. Instead, he bumped into Gore, who worked there as an occasional bartender and disc jockey. The two hardly knew each oher, but when Gore asked for a ride to the Coachlight, West couldn’t say no.
West was a happily married father with two young daughters and didn’t routinely keep late hours in bars. He wanted to go home but was stuck with Gore, who was becoming more expensive by the hour. When they left the café, West asked his passenger where he wanted to go. To his mother’s house, Gore said, on Oak Street, just a few blocks to the north. West knew the town well and headed that way, but before they made it to Oak Street, Gore suddenly changed his mind. After riding around with West for several hours, Gore wanted to walk. The temperature was frigid and falling, with a raw wind. A cold front was moving in.
They stopped near the Oak Avenue Baptist Church, not far from where Gore said his mother lived. He jumped out, said thanks for everything, and began walking west.
The Oak Avenue Baptist Church was about a mile from Debbie Carter’s apartment.
Gore’s mother actually lived on the other side of town, nowhere near the church.
Around 2:30 a.m., Gina Vietta was in her apartment with some friends when she received two unusual phone calls, both from Debbie Carter. In the first call, Debbie asked Gina to drive over and pick her up because someone, a visitor, was in her apartment and he was making her feel uncomfortable. Gina asked who it was, who was there? The conversation was cut short by muffled voices and the sounds of a struggle over the use of the phone. Gina was rightfully worried and thought the request strange. Debbie had her own car, a 1975 Oldsmobile, and could certainly drive herself anywhere. As Gina was hurriedly leaving her apartment, the phone rang again. It was Debbie, saying that she had changed her mind, things were fine on her end, don’t bother. Gina again asked who the visitor was, but Debbie changed the subject and would not give his name. She asked Gina to call her in the morning, to wake her so she wouldn’t be late for work. It was an odd request, one Debbie had never made before.
Gina started to drive over anyway, but had second thoughts. She had guests in her apartment. It was very late. Debbie Carter could take care of herself, and besides, if she had a guy in her room, Gina didn’t want to intrude. Gina went to bed and forgot to call Debbie a few hours later.
Around 11:00 a.m. on December 8, Donna Johnson stopped by to say hello to Debbie. The two had been close in high school before Donna moved to Shawnee, an hour away. She was in town for the day to see her parents and catch up with some friends. As she bounced up the narrow outdoor staircase to Debbie’s garage apartment, she slowed when she realized she was stepping on broken glass. The small window in the door was broken. For some reason, her first thought was that Debbie had locked her keys inside and been forced to break a window to get in.
Donna knocked on the door. There was no answer. Then she heard music from a radio inside. When she turned the knob, she realized the door was not locked. One step inside, and she knew something was wrong.
The small den was a wreck–sofa cushions thrown on the floor, clothing scattered about. Across the wall to the right someone had scrawled, with some type of reddish liquid, the words “Jim Smith next will die.”
Donna yelled Debbie’s name; no response. She had been in the apartment once before, so she moved quickly to the bedroom, still calling for her friend. The bed had been moved, yanked out of place, all the covers pulled off. She saw a foot, then on the floor on the other side of the bed she saw Debbie–facedown, nude, bloody, with something written on her back.
Donna froze in horror, unable to step forward, instead staring at her friend and waiting for her to breathe. Maybe it was just a dream, she thought.
She backed away and stepped into the kitchen, where, on a small white table, she saw more words scribbled and left behind by the killer. He could still be there, she suddenly thought, then ran from the apartment to her car. She sped down the street to a convenience store where she found a phone and called Debbie’s mother.
Peggy Stillwell heard the words, but could not believe them. Her daughter was lying on the floor nude, bloodied, not moving. She made Donna repeat what she had said, then ran to her car. The battery was dead. Numb with fear, she ran back inside and called Charlie Carter, Debbie’s father and her ex-husband. The divorce a few years earlier had not been amicable, and the two rarely spoke.
No one answered at Charlie Carter’s. A friend named Carol Edwards lived across the street from Debbie. Peggy called her, told her something was terribly wrong, and asked her to run and check on her daughter. Then Peggy waited and waited. Finally she called Charlie again, and he answered the phone.
Carol Edwards ran down the street to the apartment, noticed the same broken glass and the open front door. She stepped inside and saw the body.
Charlie Carter was a thick-chested brick mason who occasionally worked as a bouncer at the Coachlight. He jumped in his pickup and raced toward his daughter’s apartment, along the way thinking every horrible thought a father could have. The scene was worse than anything he could have imagined.
When he saw her body, he called her name twice. He knelt beside her, gently lifted her shoulder so he could see her face. A bloody washcloth was stuck in her mouth. He was certain his daughter was dead, but he waited anyway, hoping for some sign of life. When there was none, he stood slowly and looked around. The bed had been moved, shoved away from the wall, the covers were missing, the room was in disarray. Obviously, there had been a struggle. He walked to the den and saw the words on the wall, then he went to the kitchen and looked around. It was a crime scene now. Charlie stuffed his hands in his pockets and left.
Donna Johnson and Carol Edwards were on the landing outside the front door, crying and waiting. They heard Charlie say good-bye to his daughter and tell her how sorry he was for what had happened to her. When he stumbled outside, he was crying, too.
“Should I call an ambulance?” Donna asked.
“No,” he said. “Ambulance won’t do no good. Call the police.”
Excerpted from The Innocent Man – Murder & Injustice in a Small Town copyright © 2006 John Grisham. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.