The Innocent Man, which is based on the 2006 John Grisham non-fiction book of the same name and Robert Mayer's 1987 book The Dreams of Ada, closely follows the pattern established in the two aforementioned documentary series. All three works are centred around the murder of a woman (or, in the case of The Innocent Man, two women). From there, the documentaries weight the guilt and innocence of the men put behind bars for those crimes. Since the men were convicted years ago, these documentaries essentially put the legal system on trial. You can guess, perhaps, from The Innocent Man's title, where the documentary's sentiments comes down.
Ada, OK is a haunted town. That much becomes obvious in the opening interviews of The Innocent Man. With a population of only 17,000, many residents of Ada were connected to the victims of two notable murders, which occurred in close succession: Debra Sue Carter in 1982, and Donna Denice Haraway in 1984. More recently, in 2005, Ada was rollicked by another tragic murder of a young woman. 16-year-old Caitlin Wooten was killed by her mother's ex-boyfriend, Jerry Savage.
In the case of Wooten's heinous murder, Savage was clearly the guilty party. He took his own life and was found on the crime scene along with Wooten. The perpetrators in the cases of Carter and Haraway, however, are not as obvious. Grisham and Mayer's books are devoted to parsing that ambiguity. Grisham's The Innocent Man profiles Ron Williamson and and Dennis Fritz, the two men put away for Carter's murder and later exonerated; Mayer's Dreams of Ada argues that Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, the two men sent to prison for Haraway's murder, are not guilty, but rather victims of an imperfect justice system.
Likely, The Innocent Man will delve into the specifics of both murders. However, the start of the show focuses more on Haraway's case — probably because Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, who were found guilty of murdering Haraway in 1985, are still in prison.
On April 28, 1985, Denice Haraway (24) disappeared from McAnally's convenience store, where she worked as a clerk. Her body was found in January of 1986 in a town called Gerty, 30 miles east of Ada. By then, Ward and Fontenot had been convicted of her murder for four months. When Haraway's remains were discovered, it became obvious that certain aspects of Ward and Fontenot's testimony didn't align with the certain facts of the murder. For example, in confessions, Ward and Fontenot claimed they kidnapped Haraway and took her west, not east. Neither mentioned shooting her, though she died by a single gunshot wound. Finally, Ward and Fontenot had differing accounts of what they did with the body — set it aflame or put it in the river. The body, however, did not show marks of fire.
Robert Mayer cast doubt on the trial's guilty convictions in his book The Dreams of Ada. Mayer revealed the misleading questioning tactics Ada police used to confuse Ward during his testimony. At once point during his testimony, Ward recalled a dream he'd had about killing Denice; using the material from the dream, the police goaded him into making a confession. Ward and Fontenot were on death row when the book came out in 1987. The men were given new trials, but were convicted again. They are still serving life sentences.
Bill Peterson, the Pontotoc County District Attorney who prosecuted Ward and Fontenot, remained adamant that the men were guilty (coincidentally, Peterson also prosecuted Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson during Carter's murder trial). In 2007, Peterson filed a libel lawsuit against Grisham, Mayer, and Fritz (who wrote his own book), which was ultimately dropped in 2008.
In 1999, Fritz and Williamson filed law suits of their own. The men sued the state and other agencies and individuals responsible for their wrongful conviction of murdering Debra Sue Carter (21) in 1982 for $100 million, and settled in 2002 for an undisclosed amount. At one point, Williamson came five days from being executed.
On December 8, 1982, Debra Sue Carter, a cocktail waitress, was found dead in her apartment. The scene of the crime was very disturbing. According to The Sun, Carter had been "violated with a ketchup bottle...her killer had scrawled messages all over her body and the walls of her flat using tomato sauce and nail polish."
Suspicion fell on Williamson and Fritz, regulars at the restaurant where Carter worked. They had no alibis. The men were charged five years after the murder, when an inmate of Fritz's (who was arrested for forging checks) said Fritz had confessed. Like Ward, Williamson recalled a dream he'd had of killing Carter; the police considered this a confession. Prosecutors submitted faulty DNA analysis as evidence. In 1988, both men were found guilty of rape and murder; Williamson was sentenced to death and Fritz to life in prison. After 11 years, they were exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).