Netflix’s The Innocent Man true story – how Ron Williamson cleared his name after 11 years on death row

When a 21-year-old cocktail waitress was found murdered and raped with a ketchup bottle in Oklahoma on December 7, 1982 it sent her small-town community into shock.

When Debbie Carter was found by a friend in her flat in Ada she was gagged with a bloody towel, hair, semen and blood strewn around her.

Smeared prints stained the walls and her body, the word "die" written on her stomach, written in ketchup and nail polish.

Debbie had been violated with the ketchup bottle before the killer had used it to leave the scrawled messages, written in blood and polish.

Five years later, Ronald Keith Williamson was put on trial and sentenced to death for the crime.

On the face of it the police had got their man – but it wasn’t as simple as that.

Williamson languished on Death Row for 11 long years before he was exonerated and released.

Netflix’s latest crime drama The Innocent Man, released on December 14, looks at his case, putting the legal system back on trial.

Based on the 2006 non-fiction book of the same name by John Grisham, and Robert Mayer’s The Dreams of Ada (1987), the docuseries breaks down what happened.

So what went so wrong? We take a look at the true story behind The Innocent Man.

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Netflix's The Innocent Man true story - how Ron Williamson cleared his name after 11 years on death row

Debbie Sue Carterwas murdered and raped

Who were the suspects?

After Debbie was found covered in ketchup and blood the hunt for her killer began.

The police drew up a list of suspects, but it wasn’t a long one and so they floundered.

Ada, a small former oil town with a mere 16,000 population, was more like an abandoned and peaceful place than a hub of crime.

Glen Gore, a friend of Debbie’s, was on the list as he was the last one to have seen her alive. He also had a history of violence.

Police questioned him, but he was never asked for any samples, or what his movements were that night.

Ron Williamson’s name also cropped up, mainly because he was seen as a strange man, but he hadn’t always been that way.

Williamson had been a local hero, a natural athlete and star of his baseball high school team, an all round good guy who even played for the New York Yankees until he suffered a career-ending shoulder injury.

Aged just 25, his professional dreams were dashed and he struggled with alcohol addiction.

He returned to Ada with his broken dreams and the first indications of a mental health problem, sleeping for 20 hours a day at his mother’s home.

Later he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but he was never treated and he self-medicated with drugs and alcohol.

It seemed he had nothing but a flimsy ‘alibi’ the night of Debbie’s murder, telling police he was at home with his mother.

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Netflix's The Innocent Man true story - how Ron Williamson cleared his name after 11 years on death row

Ronald Keith Williamson

Netflix's The Innocent Man true story - how Ron Williamson cleared his name after 11 years on death row

Debbie Carter’s graveside
(Image: Findagrave.com)

Things were about to get more complicated. It emerged that Debbie worked shifts as a waitress at Coachlight, a bar Williamson frequented.

When police interviewed Glen Gore, who had also been a customer at Coachlight, he claimed to have seen Williamson arguing with Debbie that evening.

He said a friend had told him Debbie admitted Williamson "made her nervous."

Williamson was now a suspect.

Who was Dennis Fritz?

Dennis Fritz was also on the list. A high-school science teacher from Kansas City and father of one, he had no apparent connection to Debbie except that he knew Ron. Neither had a real alibi and they didn’t really remember their movements that night.

On top of that, police felt two people could be involved as the crime scene was so messy. It’s easy to see why Fritz was seen as a suspect.

Without any real physical evidence, a confession, or even circumstantial evidence, the police were at a dead end.

Leads simply led nowhere, the forensic samples sat in labs amounting to nothing, and no one was charged. The case went cold.

Netflix's The Innocent Man true story - how Ron Williamson cleared his name after 11 years on death row

Dennis Fritz was given a life sentence, but later exonerated
(Image: Innocence Project)

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Williamson’s dream confession and trial

Skip forward to five years after Debbie’s murder and police still hadn’t convicted anyone.

In 1987 Williamson, who was already in prison for forging bank cheques, was put back in the spotlight.

An inmate at his prison, Terri Holland, claimed Williamson had confessed to her saying he had threatened to harm the informant’s mother as he had the victim.

Police said that Williamson told them he had a dream about stabbing and strangling Debbie, a statement that was considered to be a confession, according to the Innocence Project.

Debbie’s body was exhumed in May 1987 and police arrested Fritz as well, saying he’d actually been caught on tape confessing to her murder.

Now the focus turned to the forensics. The labs analysed the hairs found at the scene and they were found to match both of the suspects. They were charged with murder. The practice used for the testing is now seen as an invalid forensic science pratice.

Williamson was now in a desperate state, his mental health at an all time low.

He was diagnosed with schizophrenia on top of his battles with alcohol addiction and bipolar disorder.

“Untreated, unmedicated, Ron was charged with capital murder,” Grisham said in 2013, alluding to the injustice that had occured.

The trial was another mess.

Williamson’s attorney was blind, Petersen sent in experts from the labs who gave converse testimony that nothing at the crime scene ruled out Williamson or Fritz.

Williamson was a "wild man" in court during the trial, screaming and shouting about his innocence.

The pleas fell on deaf ears and he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Any appeal was fruitless. Williamson now faced heading to death row. Fritz got a life sentence.

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Netflix's The Innocent Man true story - how Ron Williamson cleared his name after 11 years on death row

McAlester State Prison, also known as Big Mac

Eleven years on Death Row

Williamson spent 11 years on Death Row in Oklahoma at McAlester State Prison, known as ‘Big Mac’. He deteriorated rapidly – both physically and mentally.

His appeals got him nowhere, and when the process was exhausted he was slated to die by lethal injection.

Any case for a death sentence has to be reviewed by a federal judge for the writ of habeas corpus, and in Williamson’s case his file landed on Judge Frank Seay’s desk.

Reviewing the case, he wrote in his opinion: "God help us, if ever in this great country we turn our heads while people who have not had a fair trial are executed."

Five days before his scheduled execution, on September 24, 1994, the judge finally issued a plea that allowed for him to be exonerated.

With a new legal team behind him, Williamson was sent to a treatment area for mental patients. Doctors concluded he was completely unstable and he began to get treatment.

Now the fight began on a new front with the new team arguing Williamson should never have been put on trial, questioning his competency at the time.

They also felt his previous lawyer hadn’t properly challenged the physical evidence or looked at the other suspects.

In 1998, DNA testing was carried out and it finally proved his innocence.

Meanwhile, Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project in New York came to Fritz’ rescue. After a brief second trial, where DNA evidence was now considered, they got justice.

On April 15, 1999, Williamson and Fritz were cleared.

The DNA evidence, however, threw up another suspect and it was a familiar name – Glen Gore.

The very man who had been a witness for the State at Williamson’s trial was the real murderer.

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Netflix's The Innocent Man true story - how Ron Williamson cleared his name after 11 years on death row

Glen Gore was eventually found guilty

Is Williamson dead?

The years on Death Row and long battle had taken its toll on Williamson. Fritz and Williamson filed a civil lawsuit against the Pontotoc County district attorney and defendants, including the city of Ada, the state of Oklahoma, Gore, and the county police officers.

It said they engineered a "false case that consisted of faulty forensic evidence."

It added there were “fictitious confessions reported by jailhouse snitches with overwhelming motives to lie, in addition to the self-serving lies of the actual murderer”.

The suit was settled and both received an undisclosed amount of money.

The following spring, both of the men visited New York and they took a tour of the Yankee Stadium.

Williamson was getting to live again, he said at the time he was just getting “a taste of how much fun they were having up here”.

Five years after he was exonerated, on December 4, 2004, Ron Williamson died in an Oklahoma nursing home surrounded by family after being diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.

He was 51 years old. A fifth of his life had been spent behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.

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The Innocent Man is on Netflix from December 14.