The documentary series The Innocent Man, which dropped on Netflix December 14, features a series of uncanny — and gruesome — coincidences. In the years 1982 and 1984, two young women in their early twenties were found brutally murdered in the small town of Ada, OK. In both cases, the men convicted were not actually guilty (as of 2018, Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson were exonerated after serving 11 years for the rape and murder of Debbie Lee Carter; Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot are still serving time for the murder of Denice Haraway). Both cases' questionable prosecutions inspired high-profile true crime books. The final parallel? Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson served as the prosector in both instances.
The Innocent Man features interviews with a panoply of individuals connected to the cases: Fritz, Ward, members of the Ada Police, Haraway and Carter's families, defense attorneys, and the authors who investigated the crimes in their books, John Grisham and Robert Mayer. But not Peterson. Peterson declined to be a part of the Netflix series — though he has spoken out about coverage of these cases in the past in a very major way.
After John Grisham published his book The Innocent Man, which looked into the alleged miscarriage of justice in the aftermath of the Carter murder, Peterson retaliated by setting up a (now defunct) website to tell his side of the story. Peterson felt defending his own honor was necessary, after Grisham so significantly and thoroughly dismantled his prosecution tactics.
The website featured written correspondence between him and Grisham, as well as published newspaper editorials and in-depth fact-checks of every aspect in the book. As Peterson writes in the site's introductory page, "I hope after reading this website in its entirety, you will have a better understanding of what really happened in the investigation in 1982 into the death of Debbie Carter by the police, hearings, and trials that followed and see the bias, spin, and intentional 'mistakes' of Mr. Grisham." Peterson sticks to his promise, pointing out two such mistakes within the book's first few pages. The website reads like an index of inaccuracies about The Innocent Man, filtered through Peterson's own bias.
Grisham criticized Peterson's handling of the case — especially his use of DNA evidence. But Peterson felt like he was just doing his job by prosecuting Williamson, Fritz, Fontenot, and Ward, the four men the police brought forward as suspects, to the fullest extent. "I felt horrible at the time, and I still feel bad about it," he told the Ada News of Williamson and Fritz's convictions after they were released. "I did the job the best I could based on what was presented to us by law enforcement. No one did anything wrong. You do the best you can with what you've got. No system is perfect, but this is still the best system there is."
Ironically, for someone so opposed to media coverage of these trials, Peterson may have given the documentary series The Innocent Man an idea for its opening epigraph. The series begins with the same Anais Nin quote that Peterson included in the charged letter he wrote Grisham in 2006. Peterson wrote, "A thought that crossed my mind upon reading the book that seems to apply to you and your ilk is a quote by Anais Nin: 'We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.'" Grisham responded curtly: "What a surprise! You find the book misleading and inaccurate. I expected nothing less."
The fight was on. Clearly, a website wouldn't be enough for Peterson. In 2006, Peterson sued Grisham and Fritz, who wrote his own book about his harrowing experience in prison for a crime he didn't commit, for libel. Peterson also sued Barry Schenk, the co-founder of the Innocent Project, the organization instrumental in freeing Fritz and Williamson. The lawsuit claimed that the defendants deliberately placed Peterson in a false light. A year after filing, a federal judge dismissed Peterson's lawsuit, calling the claims "not plausible."
"Where the justice system so manifestly failed and innocent people were imprisoned for 11 years (one almost put to death), it is necessary to analyze and criticize our judicial system (and the actors involved) so that past mistakes do not become future ones,” U.S. District Judge Ronald White wrote in his ruling. "The wrongful convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz must be discussed openly and with great vigor.”
After years of vocal outpourings, Peterson has stepped away from commenting on this phase of his career. In 2008, Peterson retired after serving as district attorney of Pontotoc County for 28 years. The last time Peterson was mentioned in the Ada Times, it was in relation to his granddaughter's victory at an Oklahoma horse show.