Debbie Carter was a 21-year-old woman living in Ada, Oklahoma whose subsequent rape and murder in 1982 sparked a decades-long search for justice, including two imprisonments of innocent men, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz. After those two men were exonerated in 1999, Glen Gore was convicted, charged with the first-degree murder of Carter and sentenced to death in 2006. Gore was a classmate of Carter’s who was seen arguing with her by multiple witnesses the night before she died.
The story of Carter’s murder was eventually adapted into a nonfiction book by John Grisham, titled The Innocent Man: Murder & Injustice in a Small Town. Now, it’s been re-created as a six-part docu-series on Netflix under the same title: The Innocent Man.
Carter was raped, sodomized with a ketchup bottle, and strangled to death in a gruesome murder; you can read details of her murder in the Gore v. State finding. But the story only became even more unbelievable after her death. As Grisham said on the trailer for The Innocent Man, “If I wrote the innocent man as a novel, folks probably wouldn’t believe it.”
Carter’s full name was Debra Sue Carter. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Debbie Sue Carter Worked at a Nightclub Called ‘Coachlight’ in Ada, Oklahoma
Debbie Sue Carter was a 21-year-old in 1982, the year she was murdered. She’d graduated from the local public school a few years earlier and worked at a nightclub called Coachlight as a bartender, along with two other part-time jobs that are unknown. Her parents were divorced and both lived in the area.
Ada, Oklahoma, where Carter grew up and lived at the time of her death, is largely known for the murder of Carter in 1982 and of Denice Haraway in 1984. Grisham describes the town as “a friendly place, filled with people who speak to strangers and always to each other and are anxious to help anyone in need.”
As for Carter, she lived in an apartment by herself near the local university and “was a pretty girl, dark-haired, slender, athletic, popular with the boys, and very independent,” according to Grisham.
2. Carter Died in 1982, and Was Found the Next Morning by a Friend; She’d Been Raped & Sodomized With a Ketchup Bottle
Carter’s body was found on the morning of Dec. 8 by her friend, Donna Johnson Palmisano. During the retrial for Gore in 2006, Palmisano shared her experience of walking into Carter’s apartment and finding her facedown and nude on the bedroom floor, with blood everywhere and a message written on her back.
In his book, Grisham notes the three messages found in the apartment: the first, on an apartment wall written with nail polish: Jim Smith next will die.” The second, written on a table with ketchup: “Don’t look fore us or ealse.” And the third, written on Carter’s back in ketchup: “Duke Gram.” The coroner would later find a third message written on her chest: “Die.”
Duke Graham and Jim Smith were both well-known individuals in Ada. Graham owned his own nightclub, and Smith was a local man described by Grisham as a “thug” and “small-time criminal.”
In her account, Palmisano said, “She needed help,” Palmisano said. “I saw what was written on the formica table, ‘Don’t try and find us or else’ and I thought ‘Where are they? Are they going to hurt me?”
Palmisano ran for help and called Carter’s parents, who eventually notified the police. Authorities determined that Carter had been strangled to death, but they also noted head trauma, bruises on her sides and arms, and a washcloth stuffed into her mouth.
Via Grisham, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Carter found bruising in her vagina, presence of sperm in her vagina and anus, collapsed lungs, a dilated heart, but no sign of brain injury. It was later determined that she had been raped and sodomized with a ketchup bottle.
3. Two Men Were Arrested in 1987 for the Slaying of Carter: Dennis Fritz & Ronald Keith Williamson
In May 1987, 37-year-old Dennis Fritz and 34-year-old Ronald Keith Williamson were arrested and charged with first-degree murder, first-degree rape, and rape by instrumentation, per an archived article from The Daily Oklahoman. The charge was delayed five years because of incorrect analysis of fingerprints at the scene, per The Innocence Project.
At the time of Carter’s death, Fritz was a middle school teacher in the Noble, Oklahoma public school system. He had just moved home to live with his mother in Kansas City three weeks prior. As for Williamson, he was a failed professional baseball player who had returned to Ada and was mowing lawns.
Fritz and Williamson both denied ever having been in Carter’s apartment, or even knowing her. By July, both Fritz and Williamson sought to have rape charges against them dismissed, citing the statute of limitations, per The Oklahoman. By that point, though, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation said that “hair found in the victim’s home and on the body were…consistent with those of Fritz and Williamson.”
Ultimately, Fritz and Williamson both went to court as a result of information given to investigators by informants, per The Innocence Project. For Fritz, an inmate who was paired with Fritz said he had confessed to the murder; this alleged confession came a day before prosecutors were going to have to release him. As for Williamson, an informant claimed that Williamson had told her he was going to hurt her the way he hurt Carter; additionally, police said Williamson had spoken to them about having a dream of committing the crime.
Williamson was sent to death row. Fritz received life in prison.
4. Williamson & Fritz Were Released & Exonerated of Any Wrongdoing in 1999, 11 Years After Their Sentencing
Williamson and Fritz were both released and exonerated in 1999 after DNA tests showed that their semen didn’t match the semen found on Carter’s body. The hair evidence that had originally damned them was ultimately found to be an insufficient practice, as it only determined whether the hair follicles were “similar” but not identical.
The exoneration couldn’t come fast enough: at one point, Williamson was only five days away from execution.
To The Daily Oklahoman in 1999, both Fritz and Williamson shared how they felt about their newfound freedom. Fritz suggested that he might go into the legal profession after spending so much time working on his own case, and Williamson said that he wasn’t bitter about what had happened. “I got to see the same town I grew up in, who initially convicted me, exonerate me,” he said. He further noted that the first thing the pair was going to do was go to Disney World, “then we’re going on an ocean cruise vacation and let our hair down.”
At the time of their exoneration, Fritz was 49 years old and Williamson and 46 years old.
5. Glen Gore Was Charged With the First-Degree Murder of Carter in 2001 & Sentenced to Death After a Retrial in 2006
Glen Gore, a former classmate of Carter’s and the man that multiple people had seen arguing with Carter the night of her death, according to Grisham, was finally charged with murder in 2001, just under 20 years after the crime had been committed. At the time, Gore was already serving a 40-year sentence on an unrelated charge, per The Oklahoman. He had also served as a witness in Williamson’s murder trial, claiming he saw Williamson and Carter arguing the night of her death.
In 2003, Gore was convicted of first-degree murder. However, this trial was soon overturned because of an Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruling which determined that Gore should have been able to present evidence in his earlier trial which demonstrated that just because his DNA was found at the scene of the crime, didn’t mean that he necessarily committed the crime.
In a second trial in 2006, Gore was convicted once more of first-degree murder. His first sentencing was slightly changed from the death sentence to life without parole.