Men Exonerated of Crimes Speak on Panel at Oklahoma City University School of Law

Article excerpt

The potential effects of being imprisoned for a dozen years for a murder you didn't commit run the spectrum from one extreme to the other, an Oklahoma City University School of Law audience was told Wednesday evening.

"It will make you or break you," said Dennis Fritz. "Everyone is post-traumatically affected."

Fritz and other exonerated individuals appeared on a panel that was one of two events recognizing a new exoneration program being launched at the law school. On Tuesday evening, author John Grisham appeared at a fundraising event highlighting his nonfiction book The Innocent Man, which outlines the case in which Fritz and Ron Williamson were convicted.

Fritz was one of few people in Ada that Williamson could call a friend.

Williamson was flamboyant and troubled, exhibiting behaviors that Fritz later learned stemmed from his friend's bipolar mental condition.

Fritz believes that friendship is one reason why he was pulled into the vortex of the mishandled investigation of the 1982 murder of Debra Sue Carter.

"I saw the writing on the wall," he said.

The exonerated men were at the law school to tell their personal accounts of the twisted legal paths that landed them in prison - up to 21 years in one case - for crimes committed by others.

Fritz said that an overzealous prosecutor, an election year, faulty blood and hair evidence and legal representation by a bankruptcy attorney in his capital murder case worked against him. Still, the attorney assured him "there was no way on God's green earth I was going to be convicted."

Fritz received a life sentence, Williamson the death penalty. Both spent about 12 years in prison.

Although he received the lesser sentence, Fritz said that worked against him in a way, because he did not have access to death row counsel and other assistance after the trial.

"I knew I was on my own," he said.

That experience forced Fritz to learn the law himself, write his own briefs and do everything he could to try to help himself - until he found out about the Innocence Project, whose assistance with DNA and other evidence eventually freed him and Williamson, who is now deceased.

Victims of Gilchrist

In 1986, Curtis McCarty was convicted of the 1982 murder of Pam Willis, and sentenced to death.

Cooperating with law enforcement, McCarty provided blood, hair, saliva, a palm print and other samples and evidence.

Responding to questions from OCU law Dean Lawrence Hellman, McCarty said he thinks his luck started to go bad when he passed on a rumor that Willis' drug connection was involved in her death. …

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