Ronald Williamson, Freed From Death Row, Dies at 51
Ronald Keith Williamson, who left his small town in Oklahoma as a high school baseball star with hopes of a major league career but was later sent to death row and came within 5 days of execution for a murder he did not commit, died on Saturday at a nursing home near Tulsa. He was 51.
Mr. Williamson's early life appeared charmed. As a pitcher and catcher in Ada, he twice led his high school teams to the championship of a state where another native son, Mickey Mantle, enjoyed the status of near deity. The Oakland Athletics picked Mr. Williamson in the 2nd round of the 1971 amateur draft.
After 6 years in the minor leagues, Mr. Williamson saw his career end because of arm injuries. He returned to Oklahoma and worked at a sales job, but began to show signs of a mental illness that was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
In late 1982, a waitress, Debbie Sue Carter, 21, was found raped and killed in her apartment in Ada. The case remained open until 1987, when a woman who had been arrested for passing bad checks told the police that she had heard another prisoner discussing the killing. The man, she said, was Mr. Williamson, who had been in the jail for kiting checks.
Mr. Williamson was charged with the killing. So was a 2nd man, Dennis Fritz, a high school science teacher who had been one of Mr. Williamson's few friends when he returned to town after his baseball career. The evidence, the authorities said, consisted of 17 hairs that matched those of Mr. Williamson and Mr. Fritz, and the account provided by the woman who said she had heard Mr. Williamson confess. A 2nd jailhouse informer later stepped forward to buttress the case against Mr. Fritz.
Mr. Williamson and Mr. Fritz were tried separately and found guilty. Mr.
Fritz was sentenced to life in prison, and Mr. Williamson - who had not received his psychiatric medicines for months before the trial and shouted angrily at the prosecution witnesses - was sentenced to die.
Mr. Williamson later said the prison guards taunted him over an intercom about Ms. Carter's murder. In September 1994, when all of his state appeals had been exhausted, he was taken to the warden's office and told that he would be executed on Sept. 24. He recalled filling out a form that directed his body to be returned to his sister for burial.
A team of appellate lawyers, however, sought a writ of habeas corpus from Judge Frank H. Seay of Federal District Court, arguing that Mr. Williamson had not been competent to stand trial and that his lawyer had not effectively challenged the hair evidence or sought other suspects. Judge Seay granted a stay 5 days before Mr. Williamson was scheduled to die.
In 1998, lawyers from the Innocence Project at the Benjamin C. Cardozo School of Law in New York arranged DNA tests for Mr. Williamson and Mr. Fritz. They showed that neither man had been the source of the semen or hair collected from the victim's body. Another man, Glen D. Gore, has since been convicted of the killing and sentenced to die for it.
Friday, December 10, 2004
Ronald Williamson: dead at 51
From today's New York Times: