Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Book Review: The Innocent Man

When I tell people that I'm interested in becoming a public defender, I usually receive a variety of responses. Often there will be jokes about not making much money. A conservative family member of one of my best friends was obviously trying to hide his amusement at what he surely considered to be my youthful naivete. Another man that I had never met before in my life unloaded on me, basically calling me foolish and stupid without actually coming out and saying it, and he had the nerve to ask me "how much is this costing your parents?" as if I was an ungrateful child for repaying my parents by choosing an unlucrative area of law. I fought back my temper and informed him that I was financing my own law school education through loans and scholarships. But to all of those people who find public defender work unworthwhile and disgraceful and can't understand why I would want to do it, I say to them, read this book.

This book centers around the rape and murder of Debbie Carter on December 8, 1982 in Ada, Oklahoma, and the shockingly negligent police investigation and prosecution of two innocent men. Both men were unable to afford private attorneys and were assigned public defenders. In Ron Williamson's case, he was facing the death penalty and was assigned an unwilling blind attorney who couldn't personally examine the "physical evidence," which consisted solely of a few hairs that were not inconsistent with Williamson's. In Dennis Fritz's case, his only crime was being friends with Williamson. Unfortunately, the police and district attorney were convinced that Williamson was the killer despite huge arrows pointing to someone else who was the last person seen with the victim before her death and who, inexplicably, was never asked to submit blood, fingerprint, or hair samples. The law enforcement officers were also convinced that two men committed the crime. Thus, if the killer was Ron Williamson, the second man must be Dennis Fritz. After all, they knew each other. There was even a witness who could testify seeing them in a bar together in a different town months before the murder.

Against all logic, two juries in Ada, Oklahoma convicted Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz of murder. Fritz received a life sentence and Williamson, who had a well-documented history of mental illness, was sent to death row.

This book is a true story. A shocking, infuriating, true story. They didn't have money of their own with which to challenge the state's bogus forensic results, and the judge refused to grant it to them. The police in Ada railroaded these two men and there was no one to stand up for them other than the local public defenders, the state appellate public defenders, and the Innocence Project. So the next time I get asked why I would want to be a public defender I will point the questioner to this book. It is hardly an isolated incident. There are countless dedicated, ethical police officers and prosecutors in this country, but there are also those like Dennis Smith and Bill Peterson from Ada, Oklahoma, who, in my opinion, should be held criminally negligent for what they did to these two men. Anyone who can read stories like this and not be outraged, anyone who can hear of egregious Fourth and Fifth Amendment violations by police and not be stirred to action, anyone who cannot understand my desire to do what I can do to stand up for those in our society who have no one else to stand up for them, anyone who thinks civil law would be better for me solely because I could make a lot of money needs to take a long look at themselves, their ethics, and their morality. Especially those that call themselves Christians.

Lindsey's Grade: A+

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