This is the first article in a five part series examining justice as it is applied in the most serious cases our criminal court system is designed to handle— Murder. Future articles will examine other convictions and look at improvements that can be made to improve the justice system.
Every time an innocent man is convicted, a guilty man goes free.
Twenty-one-year-old Debra Carter had been found beaten, raped, and suffocated in her garage apartment in Ada, Oklahoma on December 8, 1982.
After five years of police work that can only charitably be called slipshod, detectives caught a break in the case: A career criminal named Glen Gore told detectives that he had seen Ada resident Ron Williamson with Debra Carter at the night club she worked at on the night of the murder.
Williamson would never be mistaken for a choirboy. He had been arrested and acquitted twice on rape charges. He also had a long history of mental illness that dated back to his playing days for one of the New York Yankees’ farm teams.
Dennis Fritz was implicated simply because he was Williamson’s only friend. No witness put him anywhere near Carter on the night of the murder. Ironically, Fritz was a single parent because of the murder of his own wife several years earlier, a murder for which he was never a suspect.
Six years later, the two men had a difficult time establishing alibis. When the case was tried in 1988, DNA testing was rare and in its infancy. The police had blood and hair on the scene that they thought could theoretically have come from the two men, but nothing conclusive.
During interrogation, Ron Williamson mentioned having had a nightmare about spirits attacking him. Police insisted that this dream was a thinly veiled confession.
District Attorney William Peterson handled the case. Three jailhouse informants testified against Dennis Fritz in his April 1988 trial. Coupled with the hair and blood evidence and his friendship with Williamson sealed his fate. One juror held out during the sentencing phase to make it a life sentence instead of a death sentence.
Attorney General William Peterson presented as evidence Glen Gore’s statement (Perhaps tellingly, he refused to testify at trial) that the victim had told him on the night of the murder that Ron Williamson had been bothering her. A jailhouse informant named Terri Holland told the jury that she had overheard Ron Williamson confessing to the murder in jail. She joined yet another jailhouse informant who miraculously heard Williamson confess to the crime less than 24 hours before police were going to have to release Williamson for lack of evidence. The jury returned a guilty verdict and sentenced Williamson to death.
In 1994, Williamson was five days away from his date with the needle when he was granted a stay of execution. The Innocent Man.
A year and a half after the murder of Debra Carter, there was yet another murder in Ada Oklahoma. If it sounds like I’m telling you the same story twice, I assure you, I’m not.
Twenty-four-year-old newlywed Denise Haraway had been abducted from the Ada convenience store where she was employed. The cash register had been emptied, and the victim’s car and purse were still on the scene.
Several months later, twenty-year-old Tommy Ward was questioned, as he resembled a man seen walking out of the store with Haraway. A jailhouse informant (Starting to see a pattern already? Just wait.) told police that he had overheard who had killed Haraway.
Ward initially denied any involvement in the murder. He was released and took a polygraph at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. When he was told he had failed, he explained that he thought the results might have been off because of a dream he had.
After eight hours of unrecorded interrogation, Ward confessed to the murder, implicating two others in the death. He told investigators that he had participated in the abduction, rape, and murder of Haraway with his best friend Karl Fontenot and another Ada resident, Odell Titsworth. He told them that Titsworth was the ringleader, and that the thre of them gang-raped her, murdered her with Titsworth’s knife, and dumped her body near Sandy Creek. He apparently didn’t know Titsworth very well, as he kept referring to him as “Titsdale” throughout the recorded part of the interrogation.
Karl Fontenot was arrested, and confessed after two hours of interrogation. His confession clashed with Ward’s on the order in which the three men raped her, as well as the number of stab wounds. In his confession, after murdering her with Titsworth’s knife, they took her to an abandoned house where Titsworth poured gasoline over her and burned the body.
Police picked up Titsworth for questioning, but decided that it was unlikely that he could have carried out the attack. He had broken his arm in a scuffle with police only days before the murder, a fact that neither Ward nor Fontenot apparently knew. He was never charged.
Police sifted the remains of the burned out house where Fontenot claimed the body of Denise Haraway had been destroyed. As they were examining the “crime scene”, the owner came out and told them that it was impossible for the suspects to have destroyed the body in that house— He had burned down the house himself ten months before the murder.
But none of that really mattered to District Attorney William Peterson (See the pattern forming again?). He had another jailhouse informant whose testimony would cement the case—
Terri Holland. Look a little further back up the page, and you’ll see that this is not the first time she’s provided testimony in a murder case. She claimed to have overheard Karl Fontenot confessing, just as she had claimed to have overheard Ron Williamson. I’m not sure there’s a priest in America that has heard as many confessions as Ms. Holland has claimed to have heard.
Besides her testimony, District Attorney Peterson had to ask a jury to believe two confessions that contradicted one another in almost every way, and both indicated the involvement of a third man that the police department never saw fit to file charges against.
And believe it they did. For Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot received death sentences.
Four months after the sentences were handed down, a trapper found the skeletal remains of Denise Haraway in a field. Forensic examinations have revealed no signs of stabbing, but a bullet hole in her skull. No soft tissue remained, so no DNA has been harvested. Her body was found 30 miles away from any place mentioned in either “confession”.
Ward and Fontenot were retried. And on the basis of “confessions” which not only didn’t match each other terribly well, but bore no resemblance to the physical evidence in the case, they both received life sentences.
Mark Barrett, the defense attorney that helped clear Williamson and Fritz in 1999, has taken over the case and feels confident that he can not only clear his clients, but he feels confident that he can prove who actually committed the murder.
William Peterson still serves as District Attorney for the City of Ada.