The Innocent Man season 1, episode 3 recap: Rotten to the Core


Things are only getting muddier through two episodes of The Innocent Man. Four men are in jail. Are all of them guilty? Are any of them guilty?

Episode three of The Innocent Man opens with Billie Jean Floyd, the head of the Ada Historical Society talking about the violence of the old west in Ada, Oklahoma. It’s the story of a moment in Ada’s history that saw four criminals who were in jail taken by a mob and hanged. It was said to be a turning point toward the end of vigilante justice and the start of the judicial system punishing criminals.

When asked by the filmmakers how that was working out, Floyd simply had a coy laugh.

The Innocent Man then introduces Ron Williamson’s defense team. Mark Barrett and Janet Davis are two appeal attorneys and Kim Marks is an investigator. The three quickly lay out how they joined the case and Davis mentions that as she started to dig into the case, she started to see that maybe Williamson didn’t get a fair trial.

As Barrett lays out, Williamson believed the police waited to charge him until after his mother had died, knowing that Williamson’s only alibi depended on her word. Thankfully Williamson’s mother kept a daily journal and in that journal, it said they had watched movies all night the night Debbie Carter was killed.

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That was never submitted into evidence for the trial. In fact, she had given the receipt for the movies she rented and her journal to lead police investigator Dennis Smith, and never saw them again.

Once again, The Innocent Man lays out the revelation from episode two that the bloody palm print found at Debbie’s apartment was initially said to not match Debbie’s hand. However, four years later, after they exhumed her body, the same person who said it wasn’t her print all of a sudden found it to be a match. The episode claims this is the first time in his entire career that this person had reversed their initial findings.

In a sign of things to come, Marks recalls a case she worked on that had been tried by District Attorney Bill Peterson where the convicted man had been exonerated because the hair that had been used to convict was found to not even be human hair.

This transitions back into the tape of expert hair witness Melvin Hett saying he found a pubic hair that matched Dennis Fritz’s at the crime scene. As Barrett explains, as the years have progressed, hair evidence is becoming more and more discredited in these old cases.

It’s also revealed that, much like Tommy Ward, Williamson had told the police about a dream he had about going up to Debbie’s apartment. The police considered this an admission of guilt, despite the fact that Williamson didn’t even describe the crime scene correctly, and Peterson used that statement in Williamson’s trial.

As the episode progresses, it touches on even more suspicious aspects of Williamson’s trial. There’s the videotape of his interview with police, where he continuously and adamantly denies doing the crime, that was never given to Williamson’s defense counsel. There’s also the video of Ricky Jo Simmons confessing to Debbie’s murder before Williamson even went to trial. But, rather than charge him, the police tell him he must be making it up and send him on his way.

Another aspect is that Williamson’s initial court-appointed attorney, Barney Ward, did not adequately represent Williamson in his first trial. This includes Ward not bringing up the idea that Williamson, who received social security disability for his mental health, may not even be mentally fit to stand trial.

Because of all of this, Williamson was granted a new trial.

Over on Fritz’s end, unable to hire his own lawyer for an appeal, Fritz reached out to the Innocence Project, a group that was utilizing new DNA testing to overturn wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project took his case and offered to pay for the DNA testing for Williamson’s case as well.

Fast forward to 1999 and DNA testing is being done on the evidence from Debbie’s murder. The results found neither Williamson’s nor Fritz’s DNA were present. The episode then details the frenzy that surrounded the resulting hearing and release.

Footage from the hearing shows DA Peterson bringing a witness who says the DNA didn’t match. He then asks for the charges to be dismissed. Both men were released from custody.

A nice moment shows Fritz hugging his daughter. He had not allowed her to visit, so he hadn’t seen her in 12 years. While Fritz is clearly happy to be reunited with his family, Williamson still looks frustrated as he talks to the media. After all, as he points out, he had come within five days of being executed. As he leaves the building and starts hugging his family, Williamson also shows just how happy he is.

Juxtaposing their happiness is the devastation Debbie’s family feels having to relive this trauma and knowing their daughter’s killer is still out there. Peppy, Debbie’s mom, recalls thinking that she’d never find out who killed her daughter after that moment.

In the days following their release, DA Peterson was putting out statements saying that he still won’t call Williamson and Fritz innocent, he just can’t prosecute with the evidence they currently have.

As the episode winds down, The Innocent Man continues to posit the question of whether this is just a case of an honest mistake or was this an intentional miscarriage of justice. Even Peppy says that it felt like the police just wanted to blame Williamson because he was a neighbor and he had mental problems.

Barrett talks about how, if there hadn’t been DNA as a result of Debbie’s rape and she had just been murdered, Williamson and Fritz would still be in prison. This transitions the episode back to Denice Haraway’s case, where Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot don’t have DNA evidence to help them, even though, as Barrett says, their case “stinks like crazy.”

Back in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in 2017, Tommy says he cries when he sees other people released for wrongful convictions.

The episode ends with Barrett talking through how he thinks Tommy and Karl are innocent and he points out the parallels between their convictions and the Williamson/Fritz convictions. Both Tommy and Williamson told police about dreams they had about the crimes, which were then used in court. The lead investigators were the same in both cases and the DA is the same in both cases.

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It’s clear that The Innocent Man wants to make sure everyone knows that they think something fishy went on during the investigation.

The final image of the episode is a newspaper clipping saying that Denice’s remains had been found.

Now that they have Denice’s remains, will they be able to find evidence to clear Tommy and Karl? Or are we in store for another cover-up? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.