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Innocence, After Serving 11 Years On A Wrongful Conviction

Dennis Fritz now works with The Innocence Project, which helped overturn his conviction. (Courtesy of Dennis Fritz and The Innocence Project)

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

In 1982, Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson were convicted of a brutal rape and murder in a small town in Oklahoma. The victim was 21-year-old Debra Sue Carter, a waitress at the Coachlight Club. Williamson and Fritz each spent more than 11 years in prison for a crime that DNA evidence later proved they did not commit.

Before he went to prison, Fritz was raising his then-12-year-old daughter Elizabeth, alone. He decided she shouldn't visit him in prison, because he sensed she was scared. But, Fritz says, he knew his daughter loved him, and believed in his innocence.

Elizabeth was 24 when Fritz got out, and he remembers the moment they saw each other in the visiting room of the county jail, where he'd been transferred prior to his release.

"I was a little nervous, and I'm sure, well, she was too," Fritz tells Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin. "She was just a beautiful, radiant woman ... and my mother and my aunt were there, and we just held onto each other so tight, and we all cried a big pool of tears on the floor."

The same DNA evidence that turned over Fritz and Williamson's convictions incriminated another man, Glen Gore, who was later found guilty for the crimes.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

DENNIS FRITZ: To receive a life sentence for something that I didn't even know anything about, I was totally unprepared, you might say.

MARTIN: That is Dennis Fritz. He and a co-defendant were convicted of rape and murder in 1988. The most damning evidence at the time came from a once common forensic technique, using hair found at the scene to connect suspects to crimes. But a federal review has found that process to be deeply flawed.

The FBI and the Department of Justice partnered up with the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to conduct a year-long review, of roughly 2,000 cases. The result could now affect thousands of convictions, including those of 27 men currently sitting on death row.

In a moment, we're going to hear the story of Dennis Fritz, a man wrongfully convicted by this kind of hair analysis. But first, Paul Neufeld is the co-director of the Innocence Project, one of the partners in the study.

PETER NEUFELD: At the time that these cases went to trial they didn't have DNA testing. And so they relied on a common practice whereby the FBI hair examiner, or a local state hair examiner, would compare crime scene hair under a microscope with reference samples taken from the accused. And they would make an assessment as to whether or not, at a microscopic level, all the characteristics appeared to be similar.

What was wrong was to suggest that because they were similar, therefore they came from the same person. It would be like saying that the perpetrator was a tall guy with a size-12 shoe, and the defendant is a tall guy with a size 12-shoe, therefore he must be the perpetrator. Well, there could be lots of tall guys with a size-12-shoe. And, frankly, they should have known at the time - if they didn't actually know it at the time - that that kind of testimony was completely unscientific.

MARTIN: I understand the FBI is now going to review more than 2,000 criminal cases, as a result of this review. Does that mean that 2,000 convicted prisoners could go free?

NEUFELD: Well, not all of them are in prison any longer. They've identified already 2100 cases where FBI hair analysts said that, you know, the hairs matched or the hairs were similar. They're going to go back and look at every one of those cases now and look at the transcripts of those cases; determine was there a conviction. And then it will take many weeks and months to decide how many convictions actually need to be vacated; how many innocent people were wrongly convicted; and how many of them were executed.

MARTIN: Peter Neufeld, you worked on a case involving Dennis Fritz. We're going to hear from him in a moment. He was convicted of murder in 1988 and exonerated of all charges in 1999 because of this kind of forensic analysis you're talking about, this faulty hair analysis. I wonder if you could tell us how typical his case is.

NEUFELD: Well, Dennis' case is one of the 71 cases we've already identified where primarily state and local hair examiner's, working for the crime laboratories, came in and testified falsely that they had matched the hairs at a crime scene to a particular defendant. In this case to Dennis Fritz and to his co-defendant Ron Williamson, indicating to the jury that there was no chance that these hairs came from anyone else other than these two guys. As it turned out from DNA testing years later, not only did the hairs not come from them, it came from the guy who was the key snitch informant for the government.

MARTIN: Dennis Fritz is white. More black men than white men are incarcerated nationwide. This is an issue that the Innocence Project has talked a lot about. His case is atypical in that way.

NEUFELD: Yes. Unfortunately, one of the causes of wrongful convictions, along with bad forensic science and misidentifications, has to do with racial discrimination in criminal justice. Overwhelmingly, our exonerees are black men who were wrongly convicted of assaulting or killing white women, a much higher percentage than national statistics should warrant. If they were black, it was more likely there would be bad forensic science; it was more likely they would be police or prosecutorial misconduct; it was more likely there would be a false confession.

MARTIN: Paul Neufeld, he is the co-director of the Innocence Project in New York. Mr. Neufeld, thanks so much.

NEUFELD: Thank you very much.

FRITZ: When I was waiting, even to go to the trial, I would pray, you know, please Lord, get me out of here. You know, I don't belong here, I didn't do this. And I knew in my heart that it was going to happen, I would be released. I just - every now and then, I would ask Lord, well, you can kind of hurry up a little bit now.

(LAUGHTER)

FRITZ: Just a little bit, maybe.

MARTIN: And that again is Dennis Fritz. In 1988, he and Ron Williamson were convicted of rape and murder in a small town in Oklahoma. The victim was 21-year-old Debra Sue Carter, a waitress at a local bar. The two men each spent nearly 12 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. And their conviction, as Dennis Fritz remembers, was in large part due to the convincing testimony of one of these forensic hair experts we just heard about.

Dennis Fritz is our Sunday Conversation.

FRITZ: Before the jury, he more or less kind of mesmerized them with language that they couldn't understand, you know, charts and graphs. And it was way over their head but it sounded, you know, to them, very, very extremely scientific. This hair expert was actually using the word match in my trial. Even at that time that was not allowed.

MARTIN: That's a very specific word that has a scientific meaning.

FRITZ: Right, yes. Uh-huh.

MARTIN: You are a father. Before you went to jail you were raising your daughter alone. She was 12. You made a difficult decision. You decided that your daughter should not be allowed to visit you when you were in prison.

FRITZ: Correct.

MARTIN: Why did you decide you didn't want her to see you there?

FRITZ: You know, I could tell that she was scared to come to the prison. And I think she had, you know, she had seen TV movies probably and stuff like that about prison. And I knew that she was scared so I didn't want her to come into that type of an environment. But, you know, I knew that my daughter loved me very much. And I knew she was in support of me and she always told me verbally that she believed in my innocence. So that's really what carried me through.

MARTIN: It was discovered that the hair analysis that initially put you away was faulty. Do you remember the moment you found out you would be freed?

FRITZ: Oh, yes. It was kind of - I was in my cell. I knew that, you know, of course, the testing was going on. And a counselor came to the door and he told me that the testing was all in my favor. And so, I knew I was going home then. And I was dancing around and falling to the floor, and it was an unbelievable moment.

MARTIN: DNA testing ended up connecting one of the state's witnesses against you at your trial to the murder. That man, Glenn Gore, was eventually convicted of the very crime that he had helped convict you of.

FRITZ: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I wonder if it feels to you now that justice has been served.

FRITZ: Well, as far as the right guy being in prison. You know, we did 12 years for Glenn Gore. And people ask me quite a bit: Well, why aren't you bitter, you know, about this? And the only thing that I was bitter about was that I had to be away for my family; my little daughter growing up and my family. But more so, after I got out of prison, I realize that, you know, I'm not going to let this, like, drag me down emotionally.

It has left an effect on me though a little bit, which I think anything like that would - post-traumatic stress, some things.

MARTIN: But you're not angry.

FRITZ: It really wasn't anger. It was having been subjected to something like that and having went through the horrible quagmires of what penitentiary is like.

MARTIN: By the time you were released, your daughter must've been 24 or so.

FRITZ: Twenty four years old.

MARTIN: What happened then? Was it tough to reunite with her? I mean, you hadn't seen her in all that time.

FRITZ: Mm-hmm. Well, it might have been for her a little bit more. But I'll never forget. They transferred me from prison back to the county jail in Ada, Oklahoma and they had told me my daughter was coming. You know, and I had seen pictures of my daughter and so forth, but I was a little nervous and I'm sure, well, she was too. And anyway, they took me into the visiting room and there she was, and she just a beautiful, radiant woman - 24 years old. And my mother and my aunt were there and we just held onto each other so tight. And we all cried a big pool of tears on the floor.

MARTIN: How is she doing now? What's her life like now?

FRITZ: She's doing great. Elizabeth is - she's a bounce-back girl. She has given me two beautiful grandchildren...

MARTIN: Hmm.

FRITZ: ...and is a very, very well-adjusted girl. She makes good money as an HR consultant in Oklahoma City. And she's doing really, really, really well. I'm just so proud of her. And...

MARTIN: And how are you doing? How is life now?

FRITZ: It's good. You know, it's good. I - I don't know, 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 because the prosecutor was still saying that he believed that Ronnie and I were still guilty.

MARTIN: And you were living with your mother at the time.

FRITZ: Mm-hmm. So for two years, until Glen Gore was arrested, there was always in the back of my mind the possibility of being re-arrested for this crime. But, you know I - like everything else, I put it in the good Lord's hands and, you know, is with my family and, you know, enjoying my freedom.

MARTIN: Dennis Fritz, he was wrongly convicted of rape and murder in 1988. His conviction was overturned when it was revealed that the hair evidence used to convict him did not match. He served 11 years of a life sentence for a crime he did not commit.

Mr. Fritz, thank you so much for talking with us.

FRITZ: Well, thank you so much, Rachel. It was my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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