Dennis Fritz, one of the central characters in Netflix’s new documentary The Innocent Man, came from tragedy and proceeded to slide right into another. Seven years after his wife was murdered, Fritz ended up in jail under suspicion that he and Ron Keith Williamson had murdered Debra Sue Carter. During his time in jail, one of Fritz’s fellow inmates recorded a two-hour interview in which he claimed that Fritz had confessed to committing the crime. Williams received the death penalty, and Fritz a life sentence; both were innocent, and, as The Innocent Man depicts, eventually exonerated.
Fritz was released on April 15, 1999 thanks to Barry Scheck and The Innocence Project. He hadn’t seen his daughter, Elizabeth Clinton, since he was put in prison — he didn’t want her around his fellow inmates. When he arrived at his 1999 trial, Clinton hadn’t seen her dad in 12 years.
“The harm that [the justice system] did to me was that it took 12 years out of my life, away from my family members,” Fritz told FRONTLINE after his release. “I was cheated of watching my daughter grow and flower into a woman. No amount of money on the face of the earth could even begin to make an amend for what happened.”
Immediately following his release, Fritz moved to Kansas City to live with his mother. Williamson died in 2004 following complications of cirrhosis, but Fritz went on to become an emblem of sorts for The Innocence Project, which is to this day one of the most high-profile criminal justice nonprofits around.
Peggy Sanders, Debra Carter’s mother, forgave both Fritz and Williamson, inviting the two exonerated men in as friends. In 2008, a New York Times reporter attended a benefit for The Innocence Project, where Sanders and Fritz sat at the same table and even danced together.
“I had to do it for my daughter,” Sanders told the Times regarding her friendship with Fritz and Williamson. “They had become victims of this, too. People still don’t believe they’re innocent. I was just at a funeral, and a woman come up to me and said, ‘I know them two done it.’ I said, ‘No, they didn’t.’ ”
Fritz, now 68, wrote a book of his own in 2006. (It’s noted in The Innocent Man that Fritz was very smart; his ability to write clearly is part of the reason why the Innocent Project was able to take on his case.) Called Journey Toward Justice, the book chronicles Fritz’s conviction and his path toward release. He has worked with the Innocence Project as well as the Midwest Innocence Project.