Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries, The Innocent Man, has a rare happy ending for the suspects involved. After spending 11 years in prison for the 1982 murder of Debbie Sue Carter, Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson were exonerated and released. Williamson died a few years after getting out, but Dennis Fritz now dedicates time to telling the story of his prison stay, how his faith in God helped him keep a level mind while behind bars, and the importance of having a criminal justice system that values truth above vengeance.
According to the official website for the Innocence Project, Fritz was exonerated in 1999 after being convicted in 1988. The Innocence Project also reports that Fritz was initially implicated in the case because, on the night of Carter’s murder, Williamson was reportedly seen at the restaurant where she worked, and he had been known to frequent the establishment with Fritz. Also per the Innocence Project, an inmate paired with Fritz in jail while he was awaiting trial later came forward and alleged that he had confessed to the murder.
During the trial, the Innocence Project continues, a forensic analyst testified that hairs from the crime scene were consistent with Fritz’s hair, while Fritz testified that he could not remember where he was on the night of Carter’s murder, as at that point, five years had passed. In turn, he was sentenced to life in prison, until DNA evidence eventually exonerated him.
Following Fritz’s release from prison, he said the fear of going back to jail still weighed on him. "For quite a while, after I got out, when I would see a police car drive by my mother’s house, I would kind of flinch … there was always in the back of my mind the possibility of being re-arrested for this crime," he told NPR in 2013.
Fritz also wrote about his experience in the 2008 book Journey Towards Justice, which provided a first-person account of events that had earlier been documented in John Grisham’s 2006 true crime novel The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, upon which the Netflix docuseries is based. On top of that, he’s spent his post-prison years advocating for the release of others as a member of the Midwest Innocence Project’s Board of Directors.
However, according to PBS, Fritz and Williamson did file a civil suit against several parties involved in their arrest and imprisonment, which was settled for an undisclosed sum of money. "The harm that it did to me was that it took 12 years out of my life, away from my family members," Fritz told PBS in 2003. "I was cheated of watching my daughter grow and flower into a woman. No amount of money on the face of the earth could even begin to make an amend for what happened."
The Innocent Man, which is six episodes and also follows a second murder case that happened in Ada in the ’80s, premieres on Netflix on Dec. 14.
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