The Justice Project - Profile of Injustice

Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz

On December 8, 1982, twenty-one-year-old Debra Sue Carter was found raped and murdered in her garage apartment in Ada, Oklahoma. Four-and-a-half years later, the police charged Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz with her murder. Both were convicted on the basis of forensic evidence. Williamson was sentenced to death, at one point coming within five days of his execution; Fritz was sentenced to life in prison. In 1999, DNA evidence exonerated both men.

Prior to their arrests, Fritz was a high school teacher and a single father. Williamson had been a star baseball player before an injury prevented him from playing anymore, and psychiatric disorders began to plague him. Suspicion first fell upon Fritz and Williamson when a witness came forward saying that Williamson had been bothering Carter at the restaurant where she worked, a place both he and Fritz frequented.

The main physical evidence purporting to link Williamson and Fritz to the crime was a microscopic hair comparison. Forensic analysts compared the hairs of Williamson and Fritz with those found at the scene. Though the investigators collected hairs from the victim’s family and friends and other suspects, a criminalist at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI), testified that out of the 45 reference samples she received, she only mounted those belonging to Williamson and Fritz onto microscopic slides. In September of 1983, when she felt that she could not be objective in the investigation because of the stress and strain of working on numerous homicide cases, the criminalist passed the samples over to the OSBI’s Melvin Hett.

Hett testified that he spent several hundred hours examining the hair samples he received. He claimed to have found eleven hairs from the crime scene that were “consistent” with the sample he received from Fritz, and four hairs that were “consistent” with the sample from Williamson. In his testimony he said the hairs were “consistent microscopically and could have come from the same source.” This meant, in his opinion, that the visual hair comparison did not exclude Williamson and Fritz as suspects.

Visual hair comparison was first used in criminal prosecutions in the U.S. in 1882 in Wisconsin, where an expert visually compared two hairs, then claimed they came from the same source. On appeal the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that this type of evidence was of a “dangerous character.” Since then, the science of visual hair comparison has not advanced. The court, granting Williamson his writ of habeas corpus, wrote, “This court has found an apparent scarcity of scientific studies regarding the reliability of hair analysis testing. The few available studies reviewed by this court tend to point to the method’s unreliability.” The court cited a study from The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration of over two hundred crime labs that found the weakest area of performance was visual hair comparison, with error rates as high as 67 percent on individual samples, and inaccuracies in 4 out of 5 of the samples analyzed in the majority of police laboratories.

In addition to the visual hair comparison, the OSBI tested semen, saliva, and blood found at the scene. The forensic evidence obtained in these investigations was integral to the convictions of Williamson and Fritz.

Testing of the semen and saliva revealed that the perpetrator of the crime was a “non-secretor,” a characteristic shared with 15 to 20 percent of the population. Nonsecretors do not secrete any blood antigens that would identify blood type into other bodily fluids; therefore blood type cannot be determined from the semen or saliva of these individuals. During the investigation, Mary Long, a criminalist at OSBI, tested the saliva of twenty individuals, including the victim, to determine whether or not they were secretors. Of these twenty, twelve individuals were non-secretors, including both Williamson and Fritz. Despite this information, Long did not seek to confirm any of the individuals’ status as non-secretors through an additional blood test, except for Williamson and Fritz.

Although the blood type of the perpetrator could not be determined from the semen or saliva, the OSBI was able to identify the blood type found under the victim’s fingernails as type A, the same as the victim’s. Both Fritz and Williamson have type O blood.

The Exoneration
In 1999, after Williamson’s public defender had received permission to test the DNA found at the scene and Fritz had contacted The Innocence Project for post-conviction assistance, tests conclusively exonerated both men. The DNA found at the scene matched the man who had originally led police to suspect Williamson in the first place. The true perpetrator had given samples of hair at least twice to Oklahoma authorities during the original investigation, but the OSBI failed to compare them with the unidentified
hairs found at the victim’s apartment.

Williamson and Fritz settled with the state of Oklahoma for an undisclosed sum in 2002. Unfortunately, Ron Williamson died two years later. His story was the subject of John Grisham’s first non-fiction book, The Innocent Man.