Guilty until proven innocent?
Justice should be blind, but even with today’s advances in forensic science, human shortcomings can skew the scales, and sometimes with horrific consequences.
Dennis Fritz lived the nightmare of a wrongful conviction for 12 years at the Connor Correctional Facility in Hominy, Oklahoma, facing a life sentence after being charged of raping and killing Debbie Carter, a girl he never met.
Fritz details his experience from the moment SWAT team pounded on his front door to the eventual intervention of the national Innocent Project organization and his ultimate exoneration from criminal charges in his memoir, "A Journey Toward Justice," released in tandem with novelist John Grisham’s first non-fiction book, "The Innocent Man."
Fritz will be stopping at Park City’s Spotted Frog Bookstore this Thursday, in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, a chapter of the national network that has helped 195 prisoners prove their innocence through the re-examination of DNA evidence.
Grisham spent three months working on his book with Fritz, but the book’s focus is two-thirds on Fritz’s co-defendant, Ron Williamson, sentenced to death before a court deemed him innocent of all charges, Fritz says.
Grisham’s interest was the impetus behind "A Journey Toward Justice," he says, and the acclaimed author soon became Fritz’s mentor and support through the process of rehashing a painful period of his life. From the time of his release in 1999, until 2005, when he decided to begin writing, Fritz spent most of his time recovering from the post-traumatic stress he incurred once back at home with his family, and suing the state of Oklahoma for its handling of the case (he won and received a substantial amount of recompense, but declined to state the precise amount.)
A grade school science teacher and coach before serving time in prison, this is Fritz’s first book, but already, he reports he has been interviewed by television shows like Dateline and Fox News’ "Hannity and Colmes."
"My book is an emotional roller coaster and people have trouble reading it," he admits. "I expose the criminal justice system and the obstacles and hurdles my family had to overcome things I didn’t even consider before it all happened to me."
Fritz says as he wrote, at times the paralyzing post-traumatic symptoms resurfaced. It took him 11 months to finish.
"I did, but didn’t want to write this," Fritz admits. "It was extremely painful for me."
According to Fritz, the biggest blow was the fact that concrete evidence could have saved him from his conviction in 1988.
He claims Oklahoma’s past (and present) district attorney, Bill Peters, rigged the case that led to his conviction, hiding evidence that could have cleared his name. His DNA did not match the biological remnants, he says, and further, there was reason to believe someone else committed the crime.
After nearly five years of writing letters, the New York-based Innocent Project, devoted to re-examining evidence (especially DNA testing) that might overturn criminal cases, came to Fritz’s defense.
According to Fritz, the evidence recovered and retested with the aid of the Innocent Project’s resources ultimately found that a man Peters had testify in court on behalf of the prosecution, Glen Gore, a man who had been seen with Carter before she was killed, had DNA that matched the DNA found on the evidence, exactly.
"Not only does the system make mistakes, but DNA is powerful evidence," confirms Kathryn Monroe, director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, which covers Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. "And if preserved properly, DNA can be preserved indefinitely."
Monroe moved to Utah last fall from Washington to head the region’s fledgling chapter (currently she is the only person on staff, she says) and is working on moving House Bill 154 through the Utah State Senate after a successful approval by the House.
HB 154 allows innocent individuals to petition for a finding of innocence based on the finding of facts such as eyewitness misidentification, false confessions or prosecutorial misconduct.
The legislation is being introduced after a similar bill was passed in 2002, a statute by which a prisoner with a claim of innocence could have old evidence tested for DNA.
Like Fritz, for Monroe, the fight to exonerate the innocent has been a personal battle. She helped to free her mother Beverly Monroe after she served 10 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit, she says.
In 1992, her mother was convicted of murdering her long-time companion, Roger de la Burde, she explained, a case in which the forensic evidence indicated his death was a suicide, and there was no physical evidence connecting Beverly in any way to the death.
"The state police officer who got involved was just one of those rogue police officers that decided it wasn’t a suicide and then my mom ended up getting convicted of first-degree murder," she said. "We were able to free her through a federal court action called ‘habeas corpus’ showing that the prosecutors had ignored or hidden a substantial amount of evidence that would have confirmed her innocence."
Beverly Monroe will accompany Fritz at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Thursday in effort to spread the awareness and importance of the Innocence Center’s mission, and HB 154, Monroe says.
"Exoneration cases are primarily rape cases, and invariably involve men," she explained. "When you have a woman wrongly convicted of a crime, you don’t have the evidence from the victim who can prove her innocence."
Among the challenges of wrongful convictions, is restarting life after prison.
Monroe expects her 69-year-old mother will continue to work two minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet until she is "quite elderly," since it is so difficult to get states to agree to provide restitution.
Reflecting on both her mother’s and Fritz’s life stories, Monroe says, "They’re both individuals who had normal, responsible, peaceful lives before getting targeted for something they didn’t do. It’s important for them to speak about their troubles."
The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center will host a discussion featuring Beverly Monroe and Dennis Fritz at Squatters Pub Brewery at 147 West Broadway 300 South in Salt Lake at 5:30 p.m. tonight, Wednesday, Feb. 28.
The Spotted Frog Bookstore will host the speakers again, along with a book signing, at 1635 W. Redstone Center Drive, at Kimball Junction in Park City at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 1. For more information, contact the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center (801) 355-1888.
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