Monday, September 04, 2006

At Amazon

Death of Innocence

John Grisham's latest book has me confused. It's his first foray into nonfiction -- and it has to do with the 24-year old unsolved homicide of a girl I knew.

Debbie Carter, the murder victim, grew up in Ada, Oklahoma. I grew up in Francis, Oklahoma, only 12 miles outside of town. In the 1970s when I lived there, Ada had a population of around 13,000. That was because of East Central University.

Debbie was one of my sister-in-law's best friends. I'd gotten married at 19 and my wife and I sometimes had her kid sister over with Debbie. The girls were 15 at the time. I remember Debbie as alternately shy and boistrous. It depended on the situation. Looking back now, from the age of 48 instead of 19, I realize how young she truly was. And even how young she was when she was murdered at 21.

Debbie and Donna, my sister-in-law, taught me how to two-step at the Ken Lance Sports Arena just outside of Ada. They were fun and boy-crazy at the time. That much hasn't changed with teenage girls. They were 17, sneaking into the bar with sheer moxie. (Of course, all the teens did back then because Ada was a small town and you couldn't make any money by keeping people OUT of the bars.) Getting in just wasn't that big of a deal.

I'd moved to Oklahoma City in 1981. In 1982, two weeks before Debbie was murdered, my wife and I returned to Ada and hung out with Debbie, Donna, and my brother-in-law Bobby who was just back from the Air Force. We closed Ken Lance down, then went to the Waffle House for breakfast. We talked and laughed, and Bobby and Debbie got a little twitterpatted because they hadn't seen each other in a long time, and Debbie at 21 didn't look like his obnoxious sister's little friend any more.

That was the last time I saw Debbie. My mom called me to let me know Debbie had been killed. Raped, tortured, and murdered. At the time, those were only things that happened on television to people I didn't know.

It was a major turning point in my life. A wake-up call that nobody was guaranteed any length of time on this planet. A death of my innocence too in many ways.

Debbie's murder was also one of the reasons I was so overprotective with my children while they were growing up, and even while they're married and out of the home. I couldn't help myself. I still can't. I knew bad things happened to innocents because something happened to Debbie. I still know they happen.

I followed the investigation, even talked to OSBI Agent Mel Golden, who was one of the investigators who worked the case. Five years after the murder, investigators had to exhume Debbie's body to fingerprint her. It turned out the bloody palm prints on her wall they were trying to pin a suspect to were her own.

In this day and age, with all the CSI awareness going on, fingerprinting the victim would be a common thing. But it just goes to show how ill-prepared that community was for something so horrible to happen. We weren't prepared for a murder like that. Husbands killed wives or vice versa sometimes, but there was no mystery to it. Just a sadness and an acceptance and outrage if you knew (or were related to) the victim.

Ronnie Williamson (an ex-baseball player) and Dennis Fritz (a teacher) were tried and convicted for Debbie's murder. One of them was placed on death row. Eleven years later, they were released. It turns out the DNA evidence was corrupted by Dr. Joyce Gilcrist, whose handiwork overturned a lot of cases eventually.

Another suspect was arrested and another conviction was rendered. Now Glen Gore, the man who was last convicted of Debbie's murder, arranged another trial. In which he accused Ronnie Williamson of being the murderer.

Now, 24 years later, nobody except the murderer(s) and Debbie truly know what happened to her.

I don't read all of Grisham's work, but I read a lot of it. However, I'm wary of this book. All too often the victims are dragged through the mud more than the murderers. Debbie was 21 when she was killed. She was a kid in so many ways, especially growing up in that small town. At 21, she wasn't grown. She'd just moved into her own apartment and was the child of divorced parents back in the 1970s, which wasn't an everyday thing then as it is now.

She was an innocent, and I hope Grisham has portrayed her that way. That's the way I remember her.


Katie said...

I don't know if I could read that. It's such a sad thing to have happen in your life.

Rachel Vincent said...

I was born in Ada, and I still go there to visit my grandparents. My grandmother remembers this happening.

What a small world it really is.

Debbie Carter said...

My daughter was reading a magazine called "Vanity Fair". She called me from her work to say that there was an artical in it about a young girl named Debbie Carter who was murdered in 1982. The reason she called me because my name is Debbie Carter, and in 1982 I was 24 years of age. Almost the same age as the girl who was murdered. When she told me that, the hairs on my arm stood straight up. I live far away in Canada, but instantly I felt a weird connection with this girl. I immediately went on the internet and googled our name. Hungry for everything I could find on her. Don't really know what the connection is. Because we had the same name? Because we were close in age? Or, because, it easily could be have been me in different circumstances. I hope where ever she is, she is resting in peace.

Barbara Blog's said...

Who And Where Is Dennis Fritz, You say after reading John Grisham's Wonderful Book "The Innocent man", Grisham's First non-fiction book. The Other Innocent Man hardly mentioned in "The Innocent Man" has his own compelling and fascinating story to tell in "Journey Toward Justice". John Grisham endorsed Dennis Fritz's Book on the Front Cover. Dennis Fritz wrote his Book Published by Seven Locks Press, to bring awareness about False Convictions, and The Death Penalty. "Journey Toward Justice" is a testimony to the Triumph of the Human Spirit and is a Stunning and Shocking Memoir. Dennis Fritz was wrongfully convicted of murder after a swift trail. The only thing that saved him from the Death Penalty was a lone vote from a juror. "The Innocent Man" by John Grisham is all about Ronnie Williamson, Dennis Fritz's was his co-defendant. Ronnie Williamson was sentenced to the Death Penalty. Both were exonerated after spending 12 years in prison. Both Freed by a simple DNA test, The real killer was one of the Prosecution's Key Witness. John Grisham's "The Innocent Man" tells half the story. Dennis Fritz's Story needs to be heard. Read about how he wrote hundreds of letters and appellate briefs in his own defense and immersed himself in an intense study of law. He was a school teacher and a ordinary man from Ada Oklahoma, whose wife was brutally murdered in 1975. On May 8, 1987 while raising his young daughter alone, he was put under arrest and on his way to jail on charges of rape and murder. Since then, it has been a long hard road filled with twist and turns. Dennis Fritz is now on his "Journey Toward Justice". He never blamed the Lord and soley relied on his faith in God to make it through. He waited for God's time and never gave up.

Rick said...

I would like to clarify one thing, having just read the book "The Innocent Man", and Bill Peterson's website defending his prosecution of Williamson and Fritz.

You state that Williamson and Fritz were released because of corrupted DNA evidence. I have not found that account anywhere. They were freed because DNA proved that they had no murdered Debbie Carter. Their DNA did not match any samples found at the murder scene. It's that simple. I believe saying they were freed because of corrupted DNA evidence is misleading and flat out wrong.

Brooke said...

I'm currently reading "The Innocent Man," and please rest assured and Debbie was in no way portrayed badly. I can understand your worry about portraying a victim in the wrong light, but this is not the case with Debbie. Just from reading Grisham's words, you know that she was a good Southern girl, and did not ask for trouble in any way.
May she rest in peace.

justiceforall said...

I have read all of Grisham's novels and WAS ONCE A HUGE FAN OF HIS UNTIL READING THIS GARBAGE. Grisham's account is so one-sided that it screams for media attention. This book should insult any reader's intelligence. I just finished the story and could not find one thing positive that he had to say regarding the police work or prosecution in this case. Certainly they must have done something right!!! Keep in mind Mr. Grisham that we can not all have desk jobs where we sit behind a computer desk and dream up silly little stories for a living. Some of us actually have to work for a living where we put our lives on the line everyday so that you can be safe in your little environment to Monday morning quarterback everythig we do.

Lucy said...

I'm sorry "Justiceforall", but does this novel hit a bit too close to home for you?

I have to say that this book was not garbage at all, and he didn't portray police and investigation work in a bad light. He portrayed the particular investigation work in the Debbie Carter case in a bad light because the police and prosecutors made up evidence so they could pin it on two innocent men. They took at dream confession and twisted it. In this case, yes, the police did a poor job. If you read the book properly, you would have read that the police were involved in a methamphetamine ring that Glen Gore (the actual) killer was a part of. They threatened to turn Glen in for all kinds of other misdemeanours, particularly drug related offenses if he didn't testify that he saw Ron Williams at a certain place during a certain time. The police WERE corrupt in that case, so why would John Grisham show the cops in a positive way if they behaved so poorly? Let me just state again, he was not trashing the work of all police and law officials, he was shedding light on the errors of the law officials involved in this case.

Also, the book in no was portrays the victims in a poor light. John Grisham states that Debbie is a young, pretty girl. A good girl. He never, ever said anything bad about the victims. If anything, he felt bad for the Debbie and her family because the real killer walked free for so long, and because they had to go through two murder trials just to catch the right guy. If the police had been doing their job properly in the first place instead of concocting stories and finding jailhouse snitches to tell lies, then the poor carter family would have seen justice served the first time round. Unfortunately, it wasn't just Ron Williams and Dennis Fritz that suffered, but the Carter family also. It took nearly 20 years before the real killer was convicted. Imagine waiting TWO DECADES before you could get closure.

Gilvane said...

I enjoyed so much the book writed by John Grisham. I am a brazilian Prosecution, and a thougth that justice wrongs happening only in countries of third world.

Gilvane said...

My god police corruption happens also in USA, and justice fail also over there.

ATM said...


From your comments it is very clear that you are on the side of the many folks in Ada that still believe Ron and Dennis killed Debbie, as stated in the book... read the book and absorbed it impartially you will note that Ron was basically a very bratty child that got whatever he wanted, and never really grew up, but he was not a killer. His family seem like like real nice people.

It is truly sad when one person is villified just because he was a misguided loser...truly sad.

John Grisham did a fantastic job on this book, and in no way did he harrange or wrongly sway the reader to believe anything other then the truth.

scratch said...

I was completely captured by Grisham's non fiction account of the wrongful judicial actions against these two men. Ron Williamson suffered from bipolar disorder which is something he was born with. It just didn't happen. Schizophrenia and other types of psychosis can be a side effect if the initial disorder is not diagnosed and treated. Back then it was extremely rare to diagnose bipolar or what they called manic depressive disorder in a young person. Still even today the stigmas of mental illness are heavy. Compassion towards such illnesses are still low in Western society where we have the greatest resources of knowledge to understand. What else is relevant in Grisham's book is the abuse of authority of the prosecutor, police officials, and jury rigging. Then not having the grace to accept defeat when they were proven wrong. This is better than fiction. It is real and probable in many situations and places.

Ash Aikin said...

I am currently reading this book along with court files and evidence from the case for Criminal Studies class. The book does have Grishams opinions, which I value since he is an attorney, but the facts are there. I saw that some guy (Justice) said one sided and unfair, well I encourage you to read the actual facts of the case. The truth is there, even Bill Peterson many years later after two failed attempts to sue Grisham admits Williamson and Fritz are innocent. Great book, sad story we the people need to learn from these cases and demand truth and justice not just accept blind guilt.