Ada, Oklahoma, is a quiet town. Almost everyone goes to one of the myriad Protestant churches and knows one another by name. Life there is full of pecan groves and high school football. But about 30 years ago, two harrowing tragedies would cast a cloud over Ada’s reputation.
In December 1982, 21-year-old Debbie Carter was raped and murdered in her apartment in Ada. Two years later, Denice Haraway, 24, went missing from an Ada convenience store. Both cases were handled by the same team of investigators and prosecuted by district attorney Bill Peterson. In both cases, innocent men went to jail.
Netflix’s original “The Innocent Man,” released last December, dives into the chilling story of the two mysterious murder cases. The documentary miniseries is based on John Grisham’s best-selling 2006 book of the same title.
In the Carter case, the pinned suspects were Ronald Williamson and Dennis Fritz. Williamson had had a few run-ins with the police and lived close by to Carter, and Fritz was often seen with Williamson. Peterson pointed to the supposed evidence that pubic hairs found at the crime scene were “microscopically consistent” with the suspects’.
He bolstered his claim with interrogation tapes in which Williamson described going to Carter’s apartment to rape and kill her. Convinced, the jury sentenced Williamson to death and Fritz to life in prison.
The Haraway case’s alleged culprits, Thomas Ward and Karl Fontenot, found themselves in the police station after some people suggested that their faces matched the eyewitness sketches of the men last seen with Haraway.
Their interrogation tapes appear even more damning: with expressionless faces and matter-of-fact tones, both young men describe how they brutally raped and murdered the girl they kidnapped.
Although Haraway’s body was not found until two years later, the jury agreed with the prosecution that enough evidence pointed to Ward and Fontenot’s guilt, and they gave them both life sentences.
But the story that “The Innocent Man” tells is a multilayered one, and it unfolds with the brilliant timing of a murder mystery page turner. The first episode opens with clips from the interrogation tapes, and the disturbing accounts seem to paint a picture of undeniable guilt.
But at the end of the episode, a balding, middle-aged man with soft blue eyes and a softer voice appears on screen. “My name is Thomas Ward,” he says. “I’ve been in prison for the last 33 years for a crime I did not commit.”
What seemed to be crystal-clear confessions turn out to be the product of police manipulating their suspects. Both Ward and Williamson later claimed that they had been pressured into describing dreams, not actual events.
Fontenot and Williamson also suffered from mental illnesses, making it difficult for them to distinguish fantasy from reality and easy for interrogators to twist their words.
Emotional interviews with family members of the accused men allow the film to begin nudging the viewer’s attitude, from wondering how these men could do and describe such awful deeds to wondering whether these men are actually guilty.
And then the facts start to pile up: an interview with a psychologist who pronounces the interrogation tapes false confessions, the revelation that key pieces of evidence were never submitted, and the police’s ignoring of other suspects.
Luckily, the development of forensic technology has given these men some hope. Hair evidence, which helped convict Williamson and Fritz, was repeatedly discredited, and with the dawn of DNA testing in the 1990s, investigators were able to clear their names and identify the real culprit, Glen Gore.
But why was he originally ignored, even though an eyewitness had identified him as the last man seen with Carter?
Although the film cannot unearth the full answer, it implies a sinister one: Gore, it turns out, was involved with drug dealers who had been known to deal to police in Ada. If it was true that police had covered for Gore, they couldn’t cover him forever. Williamson and Fritz were released in 1999, 11 years after their conviction.
Ward and Fontenot haven’t been so lucky. Their prosecutors also seemed determined to convict them. One woman who tells us that after she testified as an alibi witness for Ward, Bill Peterson threatened her to take back her statement.
“In small towns like Ada, the prosecutors and the police are under enormous pressure,” says Grisham. “Winning means justice. Winning means everything. And along the way, if the truth gets blurred … that’s too bad. And that’s how we get wrongful convictions.”
Fontenot has appealed his case, and Ward has filed for post-conviction relief, but neither have had success so far.
“The Innocent Man” weaves together old footage, acted reproductions of key scenes (showing just enough detail to be disturbing without being overtly graphic), and a wide range of interviews.
Carter’s mother, Peggy, is featured prominently, A rosy-cheeked lady of about 65 with a warm Oklahoma accent, she describes her daughter’s sweet personality, the agony that her murder ignited, and the strain that the investigation put on her.
When she tells us that her daughter was strangled with a cowboy belt and an electric blanket cord, her lips purse and her eyes are glassy. “I bought both of ’em,” she says.
“The Innocent Man” leaves us to ponder the unsettling truth that corruption exists in the American judicial system. It reports that about 4 percent of people in American prisons are innocent. That amounts to about 90,000 people.
The intentions that drove Peterson and the other law enforcement officials remain uncertain. “No, it was not a well-done investigation,” says Barry Scheck from the Innocence Project, an organization that helped Fontenot file his appeal. “There’s no need necessarily to get too conspiratorial about it, but something’s really rotten at the core of this case.”
However intentional, that “something rotten” has locked Ward and Fontenot behind bars, and it almost sent Williamson to his death.
The Carter and Haraway cases had already left the bounds of Ada itself when the trials made national headlines and when Grisham’s book hit bookshelves. But “The Innocent Man” does more than recreate a good news article or book. It literally brings the story to life — so much so that it makes us wonder how many of our towns and cities are other Adas.
Sophia Buono is a writer living in Arlington, Virginia.
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