Proven Innocent After 11 Years On Death Row: Lessons From The Case of Ron Williamson

Proven Innocent After 11 Years on Death Row: Lessons From The Case of Ron Williamson.

In this blog post, our research assistant Carolene discusses the case of Ron Williamson, and what it can teach us about the justice systems in the United States and here in England and Wales

John Grisham, a best-selling author and recipient of various accolades, writes fictional books on the most horrific of crimes. From his own imagination, using his legal background as a barrister, he has written numerous legal fiction stories which have caught the attention of many around the world for their horrific nature. For a non-fiction story to have caught his eye, it must have been shocking. To this day, he has only ventured into writing one non-fictional book in his career; when questioned he said that this was such a fundamental miscarriage of justice that he felt the need to share it.

This is the story of Ron Williamson.

Ron Williamson was a successful baseball player- a big name in his small town of Ada. Ada Oklahoma, mid America, is described by Grisham as old fashioned and rural, the sort of American small town you see in the movies. Except this small town had a loud character, and that was Ron Williamson. Disturbing the seemingly peaceful small town, following his failed baseball career due to a shoulder injury, Ron had to move back home to his parents’ house. Suffering from depression he turned to alcohol to cope, and his mental health soon deteriorated. As a result, he became known as a so-called town weirdo, and people called the police on him because he would drunkenly sing along the streets at night or randomly decide to mow people’s lawns without their permission. To many, these are classic signs of someone not coping well mentally. But to the Ada police department these were signs that he may be a horrific murderer and rapist. The link seems so tenuous, because it is. On December 8th, 1982, Debby Carter was murdered and raped when she returned from work after working at a bar. The details of her brutal rape and murder are horrifying, described by the police as the worst they had ever seen. After 5 years of no successful arrests in the murder investigation, the police turned to Ron Williamson.

The best evidence the prosecution could present was a dream that Ron described to the police.

In 1988, along with his drinking buddy Dennis Fritz, Ron Williamson was arrested for the murder. The evidence used to convict him can’t even be called flimsy; it was worse than that. The best evidence the prosecution could present was a dream that Ron described to the police. After being interrogated for days on end and hearing the story all over town, Ron described to the police a dream that he had where he had murdered and strangled Debby. This dream was treated as a confession. To the Ada police the dream seemed sufficient to suggest that Mr Williamson was guilty. In fact, Ada has become infamous for this. In a book by Robert Mayer titled The dreams of Ada, Mayer describes how the small town was so obsessed with securing convictions that several of their convictions were based on “dreams” reported by the defendants. In Grisham’s book he reveals the story of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot who were convicted for the murder of a store clerk based on a dream scenario that they described. These men spent 35 years in prison before being released after the State conceded that they were wrongly convicted.

In addition to this poor evidence, there was clear corruption at the heart of Ada’s judicial system. Evidence suggests that the lead prosecutor, Bill Peterson, forced other prisoners to lie and create stories about Mr Williamson. He forced a witness to say that Mr Williamson was at the bar where Debby worked the night of the murder and made a deal with another prisoner, Glen Gore (remember this name for later), to say that Mr Williamson had confessed to the murder whilst waiting for trial, despite Mr Gore being in another part of the prison.

So, the prosecution’s evidence was a dream confession and false witness testimony. Despite this, Ron Williamson was still found guilty at his trial. Since this was Oklahoma, a state which allows the death penalty, Mr Williamson was sentenced to death. However, the death penalty was not the only torture facing him; his increasingly deteriorating mental state was equally as tortuous. Mr Williamson was already suffering from mental health conditions, however being locked up exponentially worsened his mental health problems. Tragically, the state refused to address Mr Williamson’s mental health problems even though he was clearly suffering. He would have episodes of yelling from his cell to then staying in bed for days. One of the prison doctors even recognised the severity of his deterioration and for years requested help, only to be rejected. Where Mr Williamson did receive help, it was minimal and not a sustainable solution. In the US there have been proposed bills to ban the death penalty for mentally ill prisoners, as they are not aware of the situation and consequences (see here). This, however, has been consistently rejected. The State did not seem to care about Mr Williamson or the truth, they focused exclusively on justice for Debby and in doing so tortured an innocent man. Mr Williamson spent 11 years on death row, and at one point was only 5 days off being killed.

Thankfully, the Innocence Project agreed to take on this appeal and with little investigation needed, the lawyers soon realised the absurdity of this case. How could someone be sentenced to death in the absence of any reliable evidence? His lawyer Mark Barrett highlighted the clear issues in the prosecution’s case and Judge Seay ordered a retrial in 1999.

In the late 90s, scientific advances meant that it was possible to accurately identify someone’s DNA when biological material was left at the crime scene. For Ron Williamson, it was crucial in excluding him as the true perpetrator of the crime. The semen found inside Debby Carter did not belong to him and that his DNA was not found at the crime scene. Ron Williamson was finally exonerated on April 15, 1999, after spending 11 years on death row.

Ron was the 78th inmate released from death row since 1973, proving that there are innocent people sent to prison and likely even to their death

This is beyond doubt a massive miscarriage of justice. Ron was the 78th inmate released from death row since 1973, proving that there are innocent people sent to prison and likely even to their death. This is unthinkable, however when we look at this case it is easy to see how failures in investigation led to the wrongful conviction. If those investigating the crime hadn’t been so determined to prove Mr Williamson was guilty then the true offender could have been found. Especially since the true offender was in front of them the whole time.

After further DNA tests, it was revealed that the semen inside Debby Carter belonged to Glen Gore. The prisoner who the prosecution colluded with to be a witness against Mr Williamson.

Mr Williamson’s case is clearly a devastating miscarriage of justice. It can also teach us an important lesson about juror decisions in criminal cases: under the right conditions jurors may find defendants guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” even on the basis of relatively tenuous evidence. This reality may be particularly true in cases like Mr Williamson’s, where all involved are likely to be desperate to obtain justice for the victim.  So, what are the implications of this for the justice system?

1. The death penalty should never be an available sentence.

The fact that defendants risk being convicted on relatively little evidence means that while the death penalty is legal there will always be a risk that defendants who are innocent will be executed. This conclusion is supported by empirical research into the death penalty.

In the US 136 prisoners have been released from death row since 1976, some of whom it is now clear are innocent. One recent academic study used statistical analyses and available data to suggest that at least 4.1% of death sentences in the US are likely to be being imposed on innocent people (see here). This highlights a serious risk that the death penalty is being used on innocent people. If the death penalty was the sentence given to Mr Williamson, it can clearly be handed down in cases where the evidence against a defendant is far from overwhelming. And not all defendants will have the ability to later demonstrate their innocence through DNA testing.

Whilst we cannot be sure whether those who have already been executed are innocent, there are several cases which would indicate that this is certainly the case. For example, Ruben Cantu was executed in 1993 after being convicted of murder during an attempted robbery. Tragically, after his execution the key witnesses in the case came forward saying they felt pressured and afraid of the authorities and did not accurately tell the truth. Additionally, Cantu’s co-defendant signed a sworn confession that Cantu was not with him on the night of the crime, thus resulting in the district prosecution himself admitting the death penalty should not have been sought. Luckily for Ron Williamson, he was saved from the death penalty – though only by five days. From this case alone, it is clear that we must question just how many innocent people have been wrongly executed. The Netflix series Innocent man, which is based on Mr Williamson’s story as well as the series The Innocence Files highlight the failures within the judicial system. Given these failures it is hard to see how anyone could advocate for the death penalty even with safeguards. Safeguards clearly do not always work.

2. Further regulation of witness testimony from certain categories of defendant may be necessary.

Mr Williamson’s case shows how several pieces of unreliable evidence may be very convincing to a jury, and may even convince them that a defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. It also adds to research showing that jurors are likely to have difficulty detecting deception in witness testimony.  

Evidence from jailhouse informants or others ‘co-operating’ with the police is important in many cases beyond Mr Williamson’s. In a May 2015 ‘Snitch Watch’, the National Registry for Exonerations in the USA found that eight percent of all exonerees in their Registry (119 of the 1,567 cases) were convicted in part by testimony from jailhouse informants. They found that this kind of testimony was more likely to have contributed to miscarriages of justice in more serious cases.

Evidence from witnesses who may be incentivised to lie is not just problematic in the USA. Our database of miscarriages of justice in the UK contains details of 34 miscarriages of justice involving evidence from police informant’s or co-defendants (see here). For example, Gary Ford was convicted of robbery and burglary in 1996 based largely on the evidence of a man called Karl Chapman, who was later shown to have received inducements to give evidence against him. Adam Joof, Levi Walker, Antonio Christie, Michael Osbourne, and Owen Crooks were all convicted of murder largely on the basis of the testimony of a co-defendant who claimed to have witnessed the shooting. Their convictions were overturned on appeal when undisclosed evidence showed that known dishonesty of the co-defendant had not been disclosed to the defence. David Tucker was convicted of robbery based largely on evidence from his co-accused, but was acquitted when evidence showed the co-accused had a clear motive to implicate Mr Tucker regardless of guilt.

This evidence suggests certain types of witness, including jailhouse informants and co-defendants, who are particularly likely to be incentivised to lie. This risk of incentivisation, combined with the difficulties jurors are likely to have in detecting deception, mean that enhanced procedures to protect defendants in these types of case may be necessary. These protections may include enhanced disclosure requirements, or even, in certain cases, excluding evidence from the jury all together based on the risk of an unknown incentive to lie being present. Exclusion of evidence may be particularly appropriate in cases involving jailhouse informants.

Sadly, Ron Williamson died in 2004, at the age of 51, just five years after being exonerated. Thankfully, he was a free man when he died. The lessons learned from his case can be used to help prevent similar injustices being inflicted on other defendants.

For further information on this case, John Grisham’s The Innocent Man book is available online, and a Netflix series named The Innocent Man also tells Mr Williamson’s story. 

Author Carolene Clarke EBJL Miscarriages of Justice Student Research Assistant.

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