Calling all fans of Making a Murderer: You may want to cancel your weekend plans in favor of watching this six-hour show instead. Netflix's new docu-series, The Innocent Man, out December 14, follows in similar footsteps to Making a Murderer. Both question whether men who were found guilty for long-ago murders actually are guilty. The major difference? In The Innocent Man, four men's guilt is debated, not two.
The small town of Ada, OK is home to two eerily similar tragedies. In 1982, waitress Debra Sue Carter was found murdered in her apartment. In 1984, Donna Denice Haraway disappeared from her job at a convenience store; her body was found months later. In both instances, two pairs of men were prosecuted by Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson for the murder: Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz in the case of Carter's murder; Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot in the case of Haraway's. All four men were convicted despite shoddy DNA evidence. In a final parallel, each case inspired a book: Robert Mayer's The Dreams of Ada looked into Haraway's murder; Josh Grisham's An Innocent Man looked into Carter's. Much of the documentary looks into how the men have fared in the year since their conviction, including Ron Williamson.
Who was Ron Williamson?
Ronald Keith Williamson was born on February 3, 1953 in Ada, OK, the youngest of three children. In high school, Williamson's athletic abilities rendered him a local legend. After graduating, Williamson was the 41st pick in the 1971 amateurs draft. He dropped out of college to play for the Coos Bay-North Bend A's in Oregon, with eventual hopes of a career in the major league. However, a shoulder injury sent the once-promising pitcher back to Oklahoma in 1974.
Williamson struggled to adjust to post-baseball life. He took to substance abuse and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and severe depression, conditions which worsened when he was in prison.
Why were Williamson and Fritz convicted?
In 1988, Williamson and Fritz were tried in the murder of Debra Sue Carter, six years after the incident took place. At the time, Fritz was a high school teacher; Williamson was unemployed. Neither man could remember where they had been that evening years prior, though Williamson and Fritz often frequented the Coachlight Club, where Carter worked as a waitress.
The prosecution's main witness was a man named Glen Gore, who claimed he saw Carter speaking Williamson that night. Gore also reported that Carter said Williamson "made her nervous." Prosecution brought forth hair analysis conducted on 17 hairs from the crime scene. After looking at the hair under a microscope, state analysts linked Fritz and Williamson to the scene of the crime. Currently, hair analysis is widely considered a deeply flawed method of evidence. According to News Scientist, "the FBI has reviewed 2,600 cases in which hair evidence was among that used to secure a conviction since 2012." But between 1980 and 1999, hair analysis was common.
In their separate trials, Fritz was sentenced to life in prison and Williamson was sentenced to death.
Where is Williamson now?
After serving 11 years in prison, Williamson and Fritz were exonerated in 1999 with help from the Innocence Project. At one point, Williamson had come within five days of execution. Both received a settlement for their conviction.
In an interview with News OK, Williamson said he struggled to adjust to a world changed by computers. "I couldn't even work a gas pump. I remember the day I came out, I stopped with my sister to get some gas and I walked up to this computer-operated pump and just thought, 'How in the world am I going to do this?'" Williamson said.
Following his release, Williamson moved in with his sister, Annette, in a house in Tulsa. Annette became his legal guardian. Williamson supported himself as a guitarist and worked in clubs in Missouri and Oklahoma.
At the end of his life, Williamson was living in a nursing home. Williamson died in 2004 of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 51.
Who was convicted of Carter's murder?
Remember Glen Gore, the central witness in the original trial? Gore was present the evening that Carter disappeared. He — not Williamson and Fritz — was responsible for the truly heinous crime. After evading investigators for 20 years, Gore was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 2003. The sentence was changed to life without parole in 2006.