The Innocence Project estimates that almost 3 percent of the nation’s inmates are falsely convicted, said Dennis Fritz in a speech on campus recently.
Fritz spent 12 years of his life in the Oklahoma prison system serving time for a murder he did not commit. Fritz spoke about his “nightmare out of hell” during his presentation attended by a standing-room-only crowd of approximately 200 people. He also signed copies of his book, “Journey Toward Justice” before the event.
Fritz recalled the pivotal day in his life in 1987 when he was arrested at his mother’s home in Kansas City, Mo., and charged with the 1982 rape and murder of Debra Sue Carter, a young woman from Ada, Okla. Fritz said he had never met the victim.
“I was really shook up,” Fritz said when he recalled being told by Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agents and Ada police that he had failed two lie detector examinations. He found out 12 years later that the investigators lied about the tests.
After his arrest, Fritz quickly realized he was in deep water. Before his extradition hearing, the OSBI and Ada detectives told him that he would die by lethal injection for his actions.
“I was like a lamb going to slaughter,” Fritz said. “People were looking at me like I was a murderer.”
An overzealous prosecutor continued to mount evidence against Fritz and his friend, Ron Williamson, a local high school baseball legend who suffered from mental illness and alcohol abuse.
Since he could not afford a criminal defense attorney, Fritz received a court-appointed lawyer whose specialty was in bankruptcy and civil litigation.
“The pressure was just too enormous,” Fritz said about the possibility of receiving the death penalty looming ahead. The trial jury rendered a guilty verdict which was no surprise to Fritz.
“I knew early on that only the good Lord above could get me out,” Fritz said about his miscarriage of justice.
“I was scared,” Fritz said about the trial’s penalty phase. He recalls his knees shaking when told that he was sentenced to life without parole. Williamson got the death penalty.
Fritz said what hurt the most was being taken away from his family and the “seed of thought that I (Fritz) could do this” planted with Fritz’s young daughter, Elizabeth.
“Prison is a cruel, rough, dangerous place,” Fritz said about settling into his life behind bars and eating breakfast with convicted murderers.
He spent eight years in the same cell while working on his case in the prison’s law library. While Fritz ran out of appeals, Williamson received a new trial due to 60 constitutional errors made at his first trial. With help from the Innocence Project, Fritz and Williamson were vindicated in 1999 after DNA technology exonerated both men.
Fritz felt cautious following his release from prison. He watched for cops all the time. He recalled a funny moment when he took his mother’s car for a quick trip, stopped for gas and discovered that the gasoline pump spoke to him.
“I knew I was really in trouble then,” Fritz said with a smile, since his years in prison had sheltered him from changing technology.
While Fritz received post-traumatic stress counseling to adapt back into society, Williamson’s mental health continued in a downward spiral.
“Ronnie couldn’t go on because it hurt him too much,” Fritz said wistfully about his friend who died of cirrhosis in 2004.
DNA testing also identified the true killer, Glen Gore, who originally testified against Williamson. Gore was convicted and sentenced to death. Gore’s sentence was overturned and he now is serving a life sentence without parole in the same prison where Fritz was incarcerated.
Despite his exoneration and Gore’s guilty verdict, Fritz never received an apology from the prosecutor.
“False convictions are such tragedies,” Fritz said. “All of us have a responsibility to safeguard against them.”
One member of the audience commented on the speech.
“He changed my opinion on the death penalty because you’re not always innocent until proven guilty,” said Kristi Hendricks, Tuttle Times office manager and OCCC Library technical services assistant, following Fritz’s speech. “It’s compelling how this can happen in America,” Hendricks said.
For more information about The Innocence Project, please visit www.innocenceproject.org.
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