By RICHARD MEEHAN
The Cool Justice Report
March 28, 2008
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
I recently picked up a paperback version of John Grisham's The Innocent Man. Grisham is best known for his works of legal fiction that largely focus on criminal trials in the South.
I confess that I believed I was reading a fictionalized account of the life and travails of Ronnie Williamson from Ada, Oklahoma. I had not heard of Williamson's case or the town in Oklahoma where he was born. The tale begins much like Grisham's fiction, with character development and a tale of a brutal murder. Williamson was a small town baseball hero who idolized Mickey Mantle. Raised by doting parents and two equally doting older sisters, Williamson nearly fulfilled his childhood dream of playing for the Yankees.
He was drafted in their minor league system, but a penchant for booze and strip clubs led to all night binges. His career faltered and signs of mental illness began to appear. As I read on I realized there was too much detail about Williamson's mental history for this to be fiction. In fact, it is the true-life story of a man victimized, first by his own excesses, and later by police and prosecutors who trampled over his constitutional rights to convict him of a murder he did not commit.
Williamson was accused of the rape and murder of Debbie Carter, a woman he had never met. Already deeply within the abyss of untreated mental illness, Williamson's oddness attracted the attention of detectives from the Ada police department. He and friend, Dennis Fritz, soon became the prime suspects in Carter's murder.
Williamson agreed to a polygraph test and the police lied and told him he had failed it. He was interrogated for hours -- with video and audio recorders both sitting nearby but turned off -- in the interrogation room.
The detectives finally broke him and he "confessed" to a dream about killing Carter. The dream confession was rehearsed over and over and when he finally could recite it without too much confusion, it was video taped.
The killers had written in blood and catsup in Carter's apartment and a palm print was evident in one of the writings. It was originally believed to be that of Debbie Carter and a criminalist with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Identification (OSBI) wrote a report to that effect. That criminalist was later convinced by an over zealous prosecutor to re-examine his findings. The prosecutor, Bill Peterson, convinced Carter's family to allow her to be exhumed so that additional prints could be obtained. After that, the criminalist issued a new opinion, excluding Carter and paving the way for the investigation to further focus on Fritz and Williamson.
Jailhouse snitches were promised lenient deals and suddenly several came forward with claims that either Fritz or Wiliamson had made admissions about Carter's murder.
Intertwined with the development of the investigation and the abuses it included, was the story of a severely mentally ill man denied the help he needed to cope with his deteriorating mental state.
Williamson and Fritz were both convicted of murder. The dream confession and jailhouse snitches were aided by an opinion from an OSBI criminalist who specialized in hair analysis. He claimed that hairs found at the murder scene were consistent with hair taken from each defendant. Later forensic experts would debunk the hair analysis as junk science. Neither Fritz nor Williamson could afford counsel and their appointed lawyers were virtually incompetent.
Sent to Oklahoma's death row, Williamson came to the attention of two outstanding lawyers: Mark Barrett who worked on the state's indigent defense team, and Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project. Eventually new trials were won for both men and later DNA analysis excluded both as the rapists and killers of Debbie Carter. Fritz put his life back together, but years of substance abuse and untreated mental illness eventually led to Williamson's early demise at age 51.
The book focuses the reader on the existence of abuses of justice that are almost unfathomable. It exposes a level of callousness by police and prosecutors that trampled on the civil rights of those they targeted, especially with the manipulation, and at times, fabrication of evidence.
Grisham takes the reader through the labyrinth of state and federal post conviction proceedings in death cases in a manner that non-lawyers can grasp. Too often, proponents of the death penalty criticize the extent of appeals and habeas corpus petitions, often taking decades to resolve. The clear message from the author is that there are still abuses within the justice system that must be remedied if we are to apply the most extreme sanction as punishment for crime.
In the last several weeks the United States Supreme Court halted the execution of a black man from Louisiana and ordered a new trial for him. Allen Snyder was convicted and sentenced to die after a 3½ day trial for the stabbing death of his estranged wife's male companion. Prosecutor Jim Williams constantly referred to the case as his "O.J. Simpson case," even mentioning that in his final argument to the all white jury. The reason for the reversal of Snyder's conviction was the use of peremptory jury challenges by the prosecutor to exclude the only six African Americans in the jury pool.
For some time now the Supreme Court has recognized that neither race nor gender is an appropriate reason to exclude potential jurors. When blacks or hispanics are challenged it must be based on a clearly articulated, racially neutral reason. Regardless of the weight of the evidence, criminal trials must be racially neutral contests. In particular, capital prosecutions must be models of due process.
Abuses, such as those revealed by John Grisham, and exposed in the recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion, cannot be tolerated by a right thinking society. Whether you are a supporter of capital punishment, Grisham's book will give you reason to think. If nothing else it wil give the reader a better understanding of why the system must take care before an execution is permitted to go forward.
Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, Litigation Counsel of America -- Trial Lawyer Honorary Society. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website, www.meehanlaw.com