Refinery29 Binge Club: The Innocent Man Recaps

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Life in a small town is supposed to be simple. Everyone knows everyone. Families attend the same churches, shop at the same market, and send their kids to the same schools. This connectedness is meant to foster community. People leave their doors unlocked, willingly help their neighbors without needing anything in return, and look out for each other when they fall on hard times. The acts, though selfless, are also self-serving. Getting to know your neighbors on a deeper level can reduce the chances that one of them will commit a heinous crimes, like rape and murder. But what happens when the unspeakable strikes a small town?
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That's the main question Netflix's new docu-series, The Innocent Man, attempts to answer. Based off of famous crime author John Grisham's only non-fiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, and Robert Mayer's book, Dreams of Ada, the six-part series explores the brutal early-1980s murders of Debbie Carter and Denice Haraway in the close-knit town of Ada, OK, and how a series of mistakes led to the wrongful convictions of four men: Ronald Keith Williamson, Dennis Fritz, Tommy Ward, and Karl Fontenot. While Williamson and Fritz have since been exonerated, Ward and Fontenot are still in prison and have served more than three decades for a crime Grisham, Mayer, and docu-series director Clay Tweel try to convince viewers they didn't commit.
How do things go so horribly wrong? Refinery29's Binge Club will break down each episode of this captivating docu-series that explores how justice systems, big and small, are broken all across the United States. Follow along for the thrilling ride.
Episode 1
A peaceful service at a Baptist church. A shot of a century-old cement plant. Sweeping pans of open fields and blue skies. The opening of The Innocent Man paints a picture of a small town of working- and middle-class people in America's Bible Belt. But something dark looms over this church-going, pecan-farming community: the 1982 and 1984 murders of two young women, Debbie Carter and Denice Haraway, respectively.
Before we dive into the details, viewers see author John Grisham, who published his acclaimed novel by the same title, in 2006. "If I wrote The Innocent Man as a novel, fiction, folks probably wouldn't believe it," he says to the camera. It's clear in this moment that the events that are about to unfold over the next six episodes will enthrall and perplex viewers who, as time goes on, will themselves begin to question what's fact and what's fiction.
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From here, we meet our first victim, 21-year-old Debra Sue Carter (who's referred to as Debbie throughout the series). Debbie's family — cousin Christy Sheppard, aunt Glenna Jones, and mother Peggy "Peppy" Carter — paint a picture of a sweet, ambitious young woman who was anxious to live a fulfilling, independent life. Just two months prior to her murder, Debbie had moved into a new apartment, the same one in which she'd be found murdered.
The tidbits about her life — the way she played with her younger cousin before work, the stuffed animal she kept on her bed, and her job at a "boot-scooting bar" — are a harsh juxtaposition to the grisly details of her murder. A friend had found her bloody, naked body lying on her bedroom floor. The murderer had left a cord around Debbie's neck and had assaulted her with a ketchup bottle. The words "Duke Graham" were written on her back, and "DIE" had been scrawled across her chest. Someone, presumably the killer, had written "Jim Smith next will die" on the wall and "Don't look fore us or ealse" (spelling errors included) on the kitchen table.
Peggy, a mother of three, recalled the day with heartbreaking clarity. The "bad, weird feeling" she had, the phone call from Debbie's friend, the fact that her car refused to start when she tried to drive over to Debbie's apartment, and the soul-crushing visit from Glenna and a friend that confirmed the worst news she'd ever receive. She also remembered the exact words the detective told her: "It happened, and it happened to Debbie. It happened to you and Debbie."
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Throughout the scene, the series introduces us to a cast of important characters: Dawn Teal, Pontotoc County court reporter; Dan Clark, private investigator; Dennis Smith, a well-liked lead investigator whose daughter was friends with Debbie; Judge Tom Landrith, Pontotoc County District Court (retired); Gary Rogers, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) agent; Bill Peterson, revered District Attorney. Nearly two years later, some of these men — Smith, Rogers, and Peterson — become key figures in Denice's murder investigation.
The transition from Debbie's story into Denice's is sudden and somewhat jarring. The story is incomplete, as we haven't even met a prime suspect. The series holds our attention, though, by feeding us plenty of details about 24-year-old Denice and the two men who confess to raping and killing her.
Her story begins with a shot of McAnally's convenience store. Some men (an uncle and his nephews) pull up in a pickup truck, and we follow one of the younger passengers into the shop, passing a man and a woman as he walks inside. He waltzes up to the counter to find the cash register open, a purse on the counter, and no attendant in sight. The scene seems intended to trick viewers into thinking the man we followed was the villain. We later learn that the real crime was right before us with the exit of the nondescript man and woman. The uncle and his nephews call the police and describe, as best they can, the description of the men who drove off with the missing store clerk, Denice Haraway.
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Another clerk, Karen Wise, reported some suspicious behavior to the police shortly after and assisted with a composite sketch. That sketch was published soon after, and officials narrowed in on local "ruffian," Tommy Ward.
The events that followed were dependent on seven men: Deputy Inspector Rusty Featherstone, Special Agent Gary Rogers of the OSBI, Captain Dennis Smith of the Ada Police Department Detective Division, District Attorney Bill Peterson, Assistant District Attorney Chris Ross, and suspects Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot.
The subsequent scenes were split between Ward and Fontenot's testimony, as they explained to Featherstone, Rogers, and Smith how a man named Odell Titsworth convinced them to help him rob the convenience store, kidnap Denice and, later, rape and kill her.
The footage of the men is cold. They describe, in detail, how they plotted the crimes, drove Denice into the country and repeatedly stabbed her before each taking a turn raping her in the bed of a pickup truck. At one point, Ward even tells the law enforcement officials in the room that Denice looked up at him and said, "Tommy, I didn't think you'd ever do anything like this."
Neither men seemed to show any remorse for their actions. It's all very convincing, too. But there's one problem: Odell Titsworth had a solid alibi. Just days before, he'd broken his arm and received treatment at a nearby hospital. There was no way he would have been able to do the majority of the things Ward and Fontenot accused him of doing.
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And, here's where things start to take a turn for the suspicious. Peterson, a master storyteller, along with Ross, presented a compelling case before the jury, despite a major hole in the suspects' stories. They called in witnesses who said they saw Ward and Fontenot driving off with Denice and who heard the men bragging about raping her. They played the confession tapes. And they relied on an incomplete psychological theory — that Ward had created Titsworth in his mind so he wouldn't have to cope with the fact that he was the one who carried out the atrocities — to convince a jury that the men were guilty. It worked.
Flash-forward to 2017, and we see Ward, older and balder, sitting in the prison where he's resided for the past 33 years.
Can the series convince us of Ward and Fontenot's innocence? Will we ever meet the men wrongfully convicted of killing Debbie? These questions, and many others, will hopefully be answered in the upcoming episodes.
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Episode 2
After a lovely (if not bizarre) scene touting Oklahoma as a state of dreamers, we find ourselves in Oklahoma State Penitentiary with a much older Tommy Ward in 2017. And after sitting in prison for more than 30 years, he has a lot to say.
Ward recounts the day that he went to give his initial police statement in great detail, from the conversation he had with his mother prior to going to the station to the cold environment in the basement where police interrogated him for hours. Though police allegedly told him that he would be helping by looking over some photos of possible suspects, it quickly became clear to him that the authorities wanted to pin Denice Haraway’s murder on him and Karl Fontenot.
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To make things worse, Ward failed a polygraph test a week later and disclosed that he’d had a graphic dream related to the murder. Officials pressed him further, and he finally caved and gave what he described as a “bogus confession,” which included a specific (and easily verifiable) burial location at a burned-down house near the Sandy River. Ward admits that he thought officials would check the location and realize he’d been lying, but if they did, they never told him. Were they so desperate to resolve the murder case that they would neglect to follow up on a critical piece of Ward’s confession? Yes, or at least that’s what Netflix would like us to believe.
From here we go over to a Ward family dinner, where his sister, Tricia, tells the cameras about the phone call she had with Ward after the second interrogation. She recalls him saying that the police fed him lines and used his dream about Denice’s murder as a key part of his confession.
Speaking of dreams, apparently, everyone in Ada, OK has them when it comes to unsolved murder cases. Mayer, who wrote an entire book titled Dreams of Ada, tells the camera that people all over town started reporting their nightmares. Is there something in Ada’s water supply?
At this point, Denice’s story takes the backseat for a while as we dive once again into Debbie Carter’s murder and meet two new pivotal figures: Ronald “Ron” Keith Williamson and Dennis Fritz. According to Mayer, Smith and the other men on the case had been eyeing these two friends as key suspects for a while but didn’t yet have any evidence to pin them down.
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Williamson, a former baseball player whose career ended after a recurring shoulder injury, had a reputation for belligerence and sexual violence; and, though he’d never been convicted in court, he was still a logical target. After all, he lived only blocks away from Debbie’s apartment and frequented the bar where she worked. Fritz had been one of his only friends when he came back to Ada with a drinking problem and increasing signs of mental illness.
Fritz’ story is an even sadder one. He had once been a teacher, happily married to his high school sweetheart with a bubbly baby named Elizabeth. Now an adult, Elizabeth recounts the horrible Christmas Eve that changed her and her dad’s lives for the worst: their landlord’s nephew shot and killed her mother through the window after she scolded him for inappropriately touching then-toddler Elizabeth. She was in the house when her mother died. Fritz, Elizabeth says, was never the same after that, and she went to live with her grandmother while he processed the events. This scene alone could be the premise for another true-crime series.
Alas, we’re still immersed in The Innocent Man, and there’s so much more to discuss, like the incredibly upsetting scene in which Peggy Carter remembers the police exhuming her daughter’s body. Remember in the first episode when they mentioned a bloody handprint on Debbie’s bedroom wall? Officials ran into a problem when neither Williamson nor Fritz positively matched the print, and they needed to prove it belonged to Debbie (despite a previous report stating that the print did not belong to her) to maintain their story that these two men were without a doubt the killers. (They felt confident in their assessment after a hair expert identified pubic and scalp hairs belonging to Williamson and Fritz at the crime scene).
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So, officials pressured Carter into signing an approval form with the promise that she could be present during the exhumation. Surprise! They didn’t give her the heads up, and she, instead, heard the news of her daughter’s exhumation from a coworker. This instance, paired with the incomplete investigation, fueled Carter’s battle with alcohol, which, ultimately, weakened her relationship with her sister and niece. What Carter didn’t yet realize was that things were about to get temporarily better, then a hell of a lot worse.
Williamson’s and Fritz’ trials happened shortly after the exhumation. Prosecutors called damning witnesses to the stand, including an Ada woman who claimed Williamson had sexually assaulted her years before, and a Coachlight patron who said he saw Williamson harass Debbie at work. The former baseball player’s temper rose at one point, and he yelled and flipped a table. No one in the jury had any doubts at this point that he was capable of truly terrible things, and they found him guilty of first-degree murder with the suggestion that he receive the death penalty. Fritz received a life sentence in prison.
Of course, the episode couldn’t end so cleanly. Flash-forward 12 years, and local news reports claimed both men could be exonerated thanks to new DNA evidence. How much more could Carter and her family endure? And, how could people trust that this new evidence wouldn’t mislead them once again?
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Episode 3
If you weren't entertained before, buckle up, because this episode was an emotional rollercoaster. Billie Jean Floyd, a sweet woman with the Ada Historical Society, kicked off the episode with a tale of Ada’s long, dark history with vigilante justice — and trust us, she didn’t undersell it.
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After our chat with Floyd, we meet three important people: Mark Barrett and Janet Davis, two of Ron Williamson’s appeal attorneys, and Kim Marks, an investigator on Williamson’s case. The three of them weave together a disturbing story of how prosecutors, law enforcement, and DA Bill Peterson failed to submit critical evidence to the court for consideration during a trial. One such omission included Williamson’s mother’s journal, in which she wrote that her son had been at home watching rented movies with her on December 7, 1982, the night of Debbie’s murder. Both the journal and the movie rental receipts conveniently went missing.
The more they researched Williamson’s case, the more Barrett, Davis, and Marks couldn’t believe how ineffective and incompetent law enforcement and the prosecution had been. First, there was the issue with the bloody palm print. How could it be that a career crime scene specialist with no history of second-guessing his work conveniently messed up this one time and relied on an exhumed body, not the handprint taken during the autopsy, to prove the print was, indeed, Debbie Carter’s?
Then, there was the issue with the hair evidence. In 1994, DNA testing technology had become more prevalent and respected for its accurate results. And, though they didn’t have DNA testing at the time of Debbie’s murder, Barrett, Davis, and Marks said that many law enforcement officials and lawyers knew that comparing hairs under a microscope “was not a science” and yielded questionable results. “Hair evidence has been discredited over and over … it seems like they were wrong more than they were right on hair evidence,” Barrett added.
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Other issues included: The use of Williamson’s dream, in which he said he raped and murdered Debbie, in court; the fact that Williamson’s former attorney, Barney Ward, failed to adequately represent him and quit during one of the trials; the years of evidence that Williamson was mentally unfit to stand trial and, yet, had been forced on the stand nonetheless; and, a two-hour videotaped conversation between the OSBI, Ada Police Department, and Williamson, in which he strongly denies ever murdering Debbie.
But the most jarring omission of all had nothing to do with Williamson. In 1987, a man named Ricky Jo Simmons went to the police station and confessed to killing Debbie. Instead of charging Simmons, the police told him he was mistaken and cleared him as a suspect.
By now, it seems that Tweel wants viewers to believe Simmons could be the real killer. Truthfully, his confession does seem to indicate as much. But, we don’t get that sweet resolution just yet, because off we go to a retrial.
Years after being incarcerated, Dennis Fritz contacted the Innocence Project, a non-profit devoted to clearing wrongfully convicted prisoners through DNA evidence, for help. They decided to take his case, as well as represent Williamson, and found that none of the DNA at the crime scene — the scalp hairs, the pubic hairs, and the semen — belonged to either man. Even the former OSBI forensic scientist, Mary Long, admitted in front of a court that their hair evidence hadn’t been strong enough to convict Williamson and Fritz.
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In 1999, the men were cleared of their charges before their families and the Carters. The scene was emotional: For the first time in 12 years, Fritz hugged his daughter. Williamson told reporters he had once been five days away from being executed. Peggy Carter left the courtroom in tears, thinking that she might never know who killed her daughter. Would she ever find out the truth? Or, would Carter spend the rest of her days convinced that justice would never be served? And, how long would it be before The Innocent Man reintroduced Simmons as a suspect?
Tweel fed off of these questions by highlighting a daunting quote pulled from a written statement from United States District Judge Frank H. Seay. “God help us, if ever in this great country we turn our heads while people who have not had fair trials are executed,” Seay wrote. “That almost happened in this case.” Though neither Tommy Ward nor Karl Fontenot was sentenced to death row, this quote certainly felt like a foreshadowing for injustice to come.
Sure enough, Tweel sprinkled in a couple of enticing breadcrumbs at the end of the episode. We move forward into the present day and see Barrett has taken up a new interest: helping exonerate Ward in Denice Haraway’s murder. His reasoning? The system had failed Ward as it had failed Williamson, by relying on shoddy evidence and the men’s dreams. Before we can dive into Peterson’s history of misleading the public, we’re alerted to an even bigger headline. Authorities finally located Denice’s body.
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We leave this episode with as many questions as we had when we pressed play. Will the series finally give us some resolution into Denice’s murder, or will the characters and stories lead us into even murkier waters? What happens now to Williamson and Fritz? And, will we ever find out who Debbie’s real killer is? Hopefully, some of these questions will be answered in the fourth episode.
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Episode 4:
“In Ada, if you’re poor, you’re nothing.” This is one of the most gripping quotes that kicks off the episode, as a group of Ada residents discusses law enforcement’s relationship with folks like Tommy Ward, that is to say, people who don’t have much money. It’s a subtle scene that some might even consider being a throw-away; yet, Netflix and Tweel knew the purpose for including it. The statement is proof, once again, that justice means nothing to officials in this small town.
Now to the more tangible drama: we finally have a body. While traipsing through a pasture in Gerty, OK a man found a skull buried beneath some brush. And, what do you know, dental records prove it belongs to one Denice Haraway. So, what’s the problem?
Well, nothing about the crime scene matches anything that Karl Fontenot and Tommy Ward told police, starting with the location of the remains. Ward had told officials that they buried the body in a ditch by the Sandy River and had burned down the nearby shack to hide the evidence. Denice, however, was discovered in a different county, about 30 miles away. Of course, police knew by this point that the location Ward described was incorrect because they spoke with the landowner of the property, who burned the shack down himself two years prior, years before Denice’s body was uncovered.
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Then, there’s the fact that Denice had a gunshot wound to the back of the skull, proving that she was shot — and not stabbed — to death. In fact, no stab wounds were found on the body at all. Additionally, the tattered shirt at the scene was red with white stripes, far from the white shirt with small blue flowers the men had described.
What if Ward and Fontenot worked together to create an elaborate lie? That’s certainly the question the DA’s office wanted people to ask. But what seems more likely at this point is that something fishy was going down with local law enforcement. For example, reporter Stacy Shelton claims she told lead officer Dennis Smith that she believed Ward’s alibi — that he had been at a party — checked out because she had also been at that party. She believed it so much that she even testified in court, much to DA Bill Peterson’s chagrin. Unfortunately, the jury didn’t catch wind of the stench and found Ward guilty of shooting Denice during a retrial, despite the complete lack of evidence.
Ward can’t seem to catch a break. He writes a letter to the parole board, which he reads over the phone to his brother, and is swiftly denied for not expressing enough remorse for his alleged crimes. His mom, Susie, is a frail 97-year-old woman whom he says he desperately wants to care for, but will likely never have the chance. He wonders every day how people could think he’s capable of such atrocious crimes. The life of an allegedly wrongly accused man seems dismal at best.
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If one good thing has come from all of the heartbreak surrounding Denice and Debbie Carter’s murders, it’s Christy Sheppard’s (Debbie’s younger cousin) mission to reform Oklahoma’s criminal justice system, including careless convictions and death penalty procedures. She sits on the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, gives lectures on criminal justice reform, and hosts a monthly support group gathering for people impacted by wrongful convictions. “Exoneree families, exonerees themselves, murder victim surviving family members, we’re all tied together by a common thread of being failed by the justice system,” she says. “We’re all intertwined by our desire to seek change so that this doesn’t continue to happen.” Is Christy the real hero of this story? I’m not ready to rule out the possibility.
Sadly, we can’t have Christy to ourselves for too long and must meet another character: false confessions expert Richard Leo, Ph.D., who has spent a lot of time analyzing both Fontenot’s and Ward’s confession tapes. He walks us through how police can manipulate and coerce false confessions — by feeding people lines, lying, and rehearsing a script — to pin crimes on unsuspecting (and often less intelligent) people. What he doesn’t break down is why Ward and Fontenot seemed to give similar accounts to the police. Had the two men been in communication? Or, could the authorities have used one confession to improperly influence the other?
Leo wasn’t the only one thinking the confessions were suspicious. Freelance journalist A.C. Shilton also noticed inconsistencies and started doing research of her own. One interesting thing she found: Glen Gore, the witness who said he saw Ward harass Debbie at the Coachlight, seemed to have received much different treatment by authorities than everyone else, which is interesting because he seems to be our next suspect. Why did the police not treat Gore as a person of interest or suspect? What, if any, connections does he have to protect him? And, what did the police have to gain by taking his word and pinning the murder on Ward? Let’s hope episode 5 has some answers.
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Episode 5:
The constant lies, wrongful convictions, and ever-growing list of suspicious characters. Shakespeare never ventured to Ada, OK, but if he had, perhaps he’d would have relied on one of his more famous lines as a descriptor: “There’s something rotten in [Ada].”
In the previous episode, we learned that officials had reason to believe Glen Gore, one of the key eyewitnesses used against Ron Williamson, was now a viable suspect in Debbie Carter’s murder case. But, who the hell is this guy, and why did it take the exoneration of two wrongfully convicted men for the police to look into him seriously? Small towns like Ada, it turns out, are burial grounds for dirty local secrets.
Gore hadn’t been the knight in shining armor he portrayed himself to be in his testimony. In fact, Debbie’s family recalled a number of times when Gore had harassed Debbie throughout their teenage and adulthood years. He allegedly tore the windshield wipers off of Debbie’s car and gave her threatening looks on multiple occasions. Debbie wouldn’t have asked Gore for help; she had been scared of him.
It seems she had good reason to be scared, too. Gore had his own criminal history, and by the time police started retesting the DNA evidence found at the crime scene, he was already in jail in another part of the state. He’d heard that the police positively identified his DNA with the semen found at the crime scene and, while taking a drive outside of the prison (the foreman, apparently, let inmates out to find drugs — seriously, what the hell is wrong with these people?) ran off. Eventually, he turned himself into the County Sheriff’s office, and he stood trial for Debbie’s murder in 2002, two decades after the heinous crime.
The jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to life without parole, something Debbie’s mother, Peggy, struggled to understand. She’d waited for 20 years to learn what happened to her little girl and, for her, justice seemed so, well, flat. Carter wanted the death penalty; she wanted this man to pay for what he’d done. But the more she thought about it, the more she realized the sentence was a blessing. Gore couldn’t appeal his sentence like he could on death row, and she would never have to see the face of her daughter’s killer again. Still, she says the thought that she may never know why Gore took Debbie’s life will forever haunt her.
At this point, there are still so many unanswered questions. Why didn’t the police look into Gore sooner? Why did he want to turn himself into the County Sheriff’s office rather than the Ada Police Department? Frustratingly, we’d have to wait to find out.
For now, Tweel wants to whet our palates with an update on Williamson and Dennis Fritz. SPOILER: The scene is astonishingly sad.
Let’s start with Williamson. Three years after his release, he said in a recorded statement that he’d felt as if prison was the seventh layer of hell. His mental illness had gone untreated for decades, he’d rapidly aged, he’d started drinking excessively, and his health deteriorated by the day. His only shining light was the newfound friendship he’d made with Peggy Carter, whom he’d frequently talk to on the phone. Their friendship didn’t have the chance to flourish, though, because Williamson died five years after his release, largely due to his problem with alcohol.
Fritz’ story is only a bit brighter. After his release from prison, Fritz started teaching classes around the country about the criminal justice system and its many flaws. He wrote a book arguing for the abolishment of the death penalty. It finally seemed like he had his life back on track. Sadly, a car crash in 2016 altered his future. Though alive, he suffered a brain injury and shows signs of dementia; the chances that he’ll get to teach again are incredibly slim.
Now that you’re in tears, let’s check in on journalist A.C. Shilton’s investigation, where things are really heating up. Shilton, with the help of attorney Cheryl Pilate and private investigator Dan Clark, went through 60 boxes of documents and made a whole lot of shady discoveries.
“Throughout this case, we see a persistent pattern where exculpatory evidence is hidden, buried, concealed, and not turned over to the prosecutor and, therefore, had not been turned over to the defense in the case,” Pilate says to the camera. She wasn’t underselling it.
Authorities had two inconsistent interviews from Gore: one in which he said nothing suspicious happened that night, and another in which he said he saw Williamson harassing Debbie at the bar. Then, there was the missing DNA. Why hadn’t anyone drawn a blood sample or asked for a hair sample from the beginning? The answers were horrible, if not unsurprising. Gore was known for using and selling drugs in the early 80s, and the police had done nothing about it. Why? Because they, too, were using and selling and had formed a relationship with Gore that bled into the investigation. The police seemed to have protected Gore to protect themselves.
Could Denice’s case have been equally as mishandled? You bet. Shilton and crew identified three alternative suspects: Billy Charley, Jim Bob Howard, and Floyd DeGraw.
Charley and Howard had been close friends and were well-known for their criminal records. They also fit the profile. Charley had fired his gun at police before, he owned a gray pickup truck (much like the one witnesses said they saw Denice leave in), and he and Howard had robbed places before. He also sold drugs. Could the police have protected him, too?
Floyd DeGraw, who also matched the sketches, also had a record and was a known sexual predator who had visited the area. He was convicted for an unrelated crime in Texas a few days after Denice’s disappearance, and police even found two IDs belonging to women from Ada in his car, proving he’d recently been there. Later in life, he raped and killed a woman in Virginia. This was a man capable of evil.
Unfortunately, law enforcement didn’t seem to take these leads seriously. If Shilton couldn’t rely on them, she was going to handle things on her own. With the help of Johnny Daniels, Ward’s childhood pal, she tracked down the three men, all of whom denied their involvement in Denice’s murder. Is this the end for her investigation, and would we ever find out the truth about that awful night in 1984? Right now, the prospect seems dim.
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Episode 6:
The final episode of The Innocent Man opens with a recording of DA Bill Peterson’s closing statement in the 1988 Ron Williamson trial. However corrupt we may believe him to be at this point (read: very), the man sure knows how to paint a picture and sway a jury. Peterson compares circumstantial evidence to snowfall. The first pieces come down light, the snowflakes still distinguishable on the pavement. But as time goes on, they start to blend together, piling in a thick layer. “No one has to tell you it’s snowing,” he says, adding that you can see it with your own eyes. The implication here: Why would you have to have all of the proof if you have enough of it? Who cares about how the snowflakes got there? We can see they’re in a pile. He’s confident he has the truth he wants, details be damned.
Without realizing how his words would someday fail him, Peterson then lays out the most incriminating admission of his career. “Or, there’s a giant conspiracy going on between OSBI, witnesses, and the district attorney’s office,” he says, almost daring the audience to second-guess him — which is exactly what we’re about to do.
But first, it’s time for a quick tear-jerking detour. Christy Sheppard, whom I’ve lauded as one of the heroes of this story, meets up with the retiring county court reporter, Dawn Teal, and retrieves Debbie’s cowboy belt. She then heads over to her aunt Peggy Carter’s house to return the belt — which Peggy had given her daughter for her 21st birthday — and, as expected, the tears flow. Thank goddess there’s a cute puppy in this scene to provide some emotional support for us all.
Enough of the feel-good stuff, though. Let’s get back to the rampant shadiness that makes up Ada’s criminal justice system. Director Clay Tweel had to rely on old interview footage of Peterson for the next parts since the DA declined to do an on-camera interview. In this clip, we see Peterson talking to Hoda Kotb about the “harm” Grisham did to Ada, OK by publishing The Innocent Man in 2006. The book, Peterson said, was an attack job on his character and was clearly meant to perpetuate Grisham’s anti-death penalty agenda. In fact, every author who’d written about Ada’s criminal justice system, including Robert Mayer and Dennis Fritz, had their facts wrong and were conducting some kind of personal vendetta. *Insert rolling-eyes emoji here*
What Peterson fails to understand is that these authors — along with journalist A.C. Shilton, attorney Cheryl Pilate, attorney Mark Barrett, and investigator Dan Clark — had done their homework and had mounds of evidence to back up their claims, starting with Peterson’s failure to provide Tommy Ward’s defense team with hundreds of pages of exculpatory evidence. Out of the more than 800 pages of evidence, Ward’s attorneys only received 146. (Later in the episode, a couple of people say that Peterson withheld more than 800 pages altogether. It’s unclear which is true, but either way, the practice was unconstitutional.)
Then, there’s the issue with Denice Haraway’s blouse. The prosecution continuously pointed to the fact that both Ward and Karl Fontenot described the blouse as lavender (or white, in one instance) with blue flowers on it. Both men also described some sort of ruffles along the sleeves. Even after Denice’s body had been found with a red-and-white-striped shirt, the prosecution still argued that both men had similar descriptions and, therefore, had at least conspired together on a joint story. We now have reason to believe this assumption was not true, and if anyone conspired to push a narrative, it was law enforcement. It turns out that a previously undisclosed witness had gone to the police with a description of what she’d thought Denice had been wearing the day she disappeared — a lavender button-up blouse with blue flowers — before Ward and Fontenot spoke with police. The authorities already had an idea of what this top looked like and probably fed that information to Ward and Fontenot.
Moving on. Remember the snitch, Terri Holland, who testified against both Williamson and Ward? Well, she had two heartbreaking reasons to push law enforcement’s narrative. First, she was one of the multiple women coerced into having sex with local law enforcement on camera. These women were emotionally and physically manipulated by the men who controlled their daily fates. Second, Holland’s ex-husband admitted on camera that her false confessions reduced his prison sentence, saving him from serving a full 40 years. When the powerful prey on the weak, they’re not fulfilling justice; they’re perverting the rule of law and committing heinous crimes in the process.
Finally, there’s the lineup. Gene Whelchel, the man who saw Denice leave the convenience store on the night of her murder, says that the police “tainted” the lineup by showing him Ward before any of the other men. Whelchel says he went into the lineup already having a clear picture of who the killer was because the police hand-picked the suspect for him. For the record, these kinds of mind games are not standard protocol.
So, that’s how we get to where we are today, with two men in prison for a crime Tweel, Grisham, and many others firmly believe they didn’t commit. Will we ever know the truth about who killed Denice? I’m not so certain, especially since law enforcement denied Ward’s most recent post-conviction relief filing, despite the three boxes of evidence presented by Ward’s team.
At the end of the episode, Tweel shares a harrowing fact: Four percent of people in jails and prisons (approximately 120,000) were wrongfully convicted. Most of those folks don’t have the support they need to fight the system, and even when they do (as in Ward’s case), the criminal justice system has a history of pushing back. Ward and Fontenot may never get the justice they deserve. How does this keep happening, and what can we do to change it? According to Grisham, we might have to start small.
“In small towns like Ada, the prosecutors and police are under enormous pressure,” he explains. “Winning means justice. Winning means everything. And, along the way, if the truth gets blurred, or forgotten, or twisted, or manipulated? That’s too bad. And, that’s how we get wrongful convictions.”
If one thing’s clear, it’s that Grisham and Tweel’s fight for criminal justice reform is far from over.
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).
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