Ron Williamson, the Death Penalty, and Protections for the Innocent

I recently listened to the audio version of John Grisham’s book The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. It’s a story primarily about one Ron Williamson, an ex-baseball star with developing mental issues who is convicted of a murder he did not commit.

I was in the midst of one of my ordinary out of state business trips and had a long drive over a couple of days. Driving along as I listened to the story I remember thinking that this wasn’t one of Grisham’s best works: The whole thing seemed really over the top. Nobody in law enforcement or in our judicial system could be this negligent, corrupt, incompetent, or just plain stupid. Not in real life. Grisham was pushing the limits of believability.

It wasn’t until the next day, after I began listening to the last disc, that I realized that Grisham hadn’t been writing fiction. He was telling a story about events that had actually happened. I have to say that realization made me nothing short of horrified.

The story has a happy ending…sort of. Williamson and another man, Dennis Fritz, are finally cleared of the murder and released after over a decade behind bars. But Williamson’s mental and physical health worsened dramatically while in prison, and he died some five years after his release.

The rest of the story is a perfectly dreadful one: A young woman, Debra Sue Carter, is brutally raped and murdered late in 1982. On the singular testimony of one Glen Gore, a man who turned out to be the real killer, and with absolutely no compelling physical evidence, Ron Williamson is charged with the murder. Dennis Fritz was implicated in the murder simply because he was a friend of Williamson’s. Both men were convicted in 1988, with Fritz getting a sentence of life in prison. Williamson received the death penalty.

In September of 1994, and five days from the date of Williamson’s scheduled execution by the State of Oklahoma, Williamson’s execution was stayed following a habeas corpus filing, and after eleven years on death row and following several appeals, Williamson was exonerated by DNA testing and was finally freed in April of 1999. Fritz was freed as well.

The details of how poorly the case was handled by nearly everyone involved in it are well documented in Grisham’s book. If you read it you will, I suspect, find yourself in disbelief at how all this could happen. A few questions come to mind:

How is it that no one saw Ron Williamson that night at the bar where Carter worked except Glen Gore, and yet that was enough to establish Williamson’s alleged contact with Carter? And this in spite of Williamson’s mother’s testimony to police officials that Williamson was home with her that night watching television.

Why didn’t anyone explain to the jury that hair samples proved virtually nothing?

Why didn’t the defense attempt to argue that Williamson wasn’t competent to stand trial?

Why wasn’t a video taped confession to the crime by another individual (Ricky Joe Simmons) introduced at trial?

Why didn’t the authorities pursue Glen Gore even in the most cursory way instead of building their case on the self-serving lies of this man who actually committed the crime?

I haven’t changed my position on the death penalty. I think it’s allowable and even necessary. But hearing about this case made me reconsider whether our system allows for the appropriate protections for the innocent who are occasionally convicted for capital crimes they didn’t commit. DNA evidence is a wonderful thing. It’s actually what ended up clearing Williamson and Fritz and finally nailing that worthless killer Glen Gore. But DNA isn’t infallible either. And in some cases DNA may reside quite naturally in a crime scene but it should not always be considered the DNA of the perpetrator. For example, consider someone who is murdered in their home and the spouse is charged with the crime.

It’s clear from the Williamson case that our judicial system can still make some horrendous errors. And in some of these cases people’s very lives are at stake. Scripture puts a very high standard for when the death penalty should be employed:

“On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.” – Deuteronomy 17:6

I am thoroughly unconvinced we are anywhere near this standard in most capital cases, and until we are I will be skeptical that our system allows for the appropriate protections for the innocent.

 

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