DNA Tests Are Freeing Scores of Prison Inmates
April 19, 1999
OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was a gruesome slaying. Debra Sue Carter, a 21-year-old barmaid, was found on the floor of her garage apartment in December 1982 in Ada, a town of 16,000 people southeast of Oklahoma City. She had been raped, and words were written on her nude body in ketchup and fingernail polish.
Five years later, two men were charged with murder in the case. They were well known in Ada: one was a junior high school science teacher and coach, Dennis Fritz; the other, Ronald Williamson, was a local hero who had played minor league baseball for the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees.
Scientific evidence helped convict them: 17 hairs found on the victim's body and analyzed under a microscope. At their trials in 1988, an expert from the state crime laboratory testified that some of the hairs were an exact match to Fritz, and the others to Williamson. The expert also said that semen found on the body could have come from them.
Fritz received a life sentence, and Williamson was sentenced to die. At one point, Williamson came within five days of being executed.
Last week they were freed by newer scientific evidence, DNA analysis that was not available 12 years ago. DNA analysis showed that the hairs and semen could not have come from either of the two men.
The DNA tests were done by five laboratories, including one at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the same agency that had done the microscopic tests in the 1980's. Now the labs say the DNA matches that of a convicted kidnapper who testified against the two men.
Defense lawyers say the Oklahoma case calls into question unproven science that has led to criminal convictions for a century. The men are the 61st and 62d inmates in the nation to be exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Justice Department. Williamson is the 78th person in the country since 1970 to be cleared after being on death row, says the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty group.
"We will get thousands of people out," said Barry Scheck, a lawyer for Fritz and director of the Innocence Project atthe Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York. Scheck was a lawyer in the O. J. Simpson murder trial who attacked DNA evidence against the former football star because, Scheck said, the methods used to collect and analyze that evidence were flawed.
"Juries eat it up when someone says 'expert' and 'science,'" said Mark Barrett, who along with Sara Bonnell represents Williamson for the State of Oklahoma's Indigent Defense System. "Hair analysis, handwriting analysis, bite-mark analysis -- unproven science has no place in the courtroom," Barrett continued. "Everyone who's ever been convicted on microscopic evidence ought to have their case reopened."
The lawyers are pushing for Federal legislation to guarantee inmates an opportunity to require DNA testing. Only New York and Illinois have such laws. Fritz, for example, had exhausted his appeals and would not be free now if his DNA had not been tested as part of Williamson's case.
The evidence against Fritz and Williamson included the testimony of two jailhouse informers and a witness who was a felon. One informer said that she had heard Williamson threaten to kill his mother as he had killed Ms. Carter. A witness at the bar where Ms. Carter worked said he had seen Williamson there the night of the killing. And prosecutors made much of a dream that Williamson said he had had about the murder.
"This case had all the building blocks of a wrongful conviction," Barrett said. "Unproven science, a jailhouse snitch, a dream and a tainted eyewitness."
That witness is now the suspect. The DNA tests show that the genetic
material of the witness, Glen Gore, 38, matches the semen. Gore, who was
serving three 40-year sentences for kidnapping and other charges unrelated
to Ms. Carter's murder, walked away from a prison work crew on
Fritz and Williamson, at a fund-raising picnic by the local chapter
of Amnesty International this afternoon, said they were angry and wanted
to be compensated. Fritz, 49, who became something of a jailhouse lawyer,
plans to move back to Kansas City to be with his mother and to spend
"I've got some student loans to pay off -- they've been charging me interest all this time," Fritz said.
Williamson's brown hair has turned gray. Now 46, he has recently been hospitalized for a pre-existing mental illness, bipolar disorder. He said that playing the guitar made life tolerable in the state's death-row cells, which are underground.
He said he considered suicide before his new trial was ordered in 1997.
"I'm getting out of this state," Williamson said. "A lot of people still think we must have been guilty or we wouldn't have been charged."
On Friday, the two men visited with an aide to Gov. Frank Keating, seeking compensation for the time they served.
Williamson's lawyer, Barrett, said that most Oklahomans favor the death penalty, all the more since the bombing, four years ago on Monday, that killed 168 people at the Federal building here. The state has executed 15 inmates since 1990, when executions resumed after a 24-year gap; it has about 150 prisoners on death row, out of 3,500 nationwide.
"With one case, people think that it could just be a mistake," Barrett
said. "But with 78 cases, they start to see that there's an epidemic of
wrongful convictions. The error rate in the death penalty is not one that
would be acceptable in most people's lines of work."