Debra Sue Carter, 21, a bright, carefree, pretty cocktail waitress, was found raped and strangled in her apartment in the small town of Ada, Oklahoma on December 8, 1982. Despite the case going cold, two men, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, were eventually convicted of her murder. Williamson was just five days from being executed when it was determined that he and Fritz were wrongfully convicted. This Debra Sue Carter wiki looks at the tragic circumstances of her horrific murder.
The events surrounding the murder of Debra Sue Carter and brutal miscarriage of justice are the subject of the six-part Netflix docuseries The Innocent Man, which begins airing on Netflix on December 14, 2018.
The Innocent Man is based on John Grisham’s only book of nonfiction, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. The bestseller, which many people could not believe was actually nonfictional, follows the chain of events of what is remembered as one of the most egregious examples of wrongful convictions in U.S. history.
Who Is Debra Sue Carter?
While Debra Sue Carter’s murder will forever be associated with the wrongful conviction of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, she should certainly be remembered for more than that.
Debra Sue Carter was born on February 16, 1961 in rural Ada, Oklahoma, a small town 80 miles east and south of Oklahoma City and three hours north of Dallas. Located in the Bible Belt, Ada is a friendly place that is home to a large number of churches. It’s the kind of town where people help each other, kids play outside, and doors are left open during the days.
It was here that Debra Sue Carter was born and raised, going to a small Baptist church where she was baptized at the age of six. She spent much of her then-free time with family and friends. Carter, often called “Debbie Sue,” was an attractive, vivacious teenager who graduated from Ada High School. After high school, though, she started to find herself, and began to stay out late and party.
By the time Debra Carter was 21, she was a cocktail waitress at The Coachlight, a club that, like almost all of the other local watering holes in Ada, was relegated to the edges of town. It was the kind of bar that attracted factory workers looking for a drink after their shift, cowboys, local twenty-somethings, and people who loved to listen to live county music.
Her mother, Peggy Stillwell, did not approve of her newfound lifestyle. The free and easy Carter, however, was enjoying herself and had no intention of giving up her independence. She got her own car and rented a three-bedroom apartment above a garage on Eighth Street. Carter kept herself busy with two other part-time jobs and sometimes worked as a babysitter.
Even though she was coming into her own as an adult, Carter still made time for her mother, two younger sisters, and Aunt Glenna, who lived a block away.
In early December 1982, she came to visit her mother Peggy and do some laundry. That night, Carter crawled into bed and snuggled in next to her mom. As Peggy recalls, Debra “wrapped them long legs around me.”
Peggy teased, “Debbie Sue, get off of me or I’m gonna tell all of your friends you sleep with your mama.”
“I don’t care who you tell,” she replied, and fell asleep next to her mother.
December 8, 1982 – Debra Sue Carter Violently Murdered
A few days later, on the night of December 7, Debra Carter was working the night shift at The Coachlight. It was a Tuesday, and it was quiet. Too quiet. Carter asked her boss if she could call it an early night and sit with some friends at a table.
She ended up sitting with her high school friend Gina Vietta and some others. Another friend from high school, Glen Gore, stopped by and asked Carter to dance. But halfway through the song, an angry Carter left Gore standing alone on the dance floor.
Later, while in the ladies’ room, Carter told her friends she would feel more comfortable if one of them would spend the night with her at her apartment. She did not say, though, why she was worried.
The Coachlight closed early that night, at around 12:30 a.m. Vietta invited friends over to her place for drinks, but Carter declined; she was tired, hungry, and just wanted to go home.
Debra Sue Carter Makes 2 Odd Phone Calls
At around 2:30 a.m., Vietta was at her apartment with friends when she received two odd phone calls from Debra Sue Carter. In the first, Debra asked Vietta to drive over and meet her at her apartment; someone was there and he was making her feel uncomfortable. Vietta asked who it was; Debra didn’t answer. Instead, all Vietta heard was muffled voices and a struggle for the phone. Then the call went dead.
A concerned Vietta got ready to head over to check in on Carter, but just before she left her apartment, Debra Sue called again. She said she was fine and had changed her mind. Again, Vietta asked who the visitor was but Debra Sue changed the subject; she asked Vietta to call her early the next morning to wake her so she wouldn’t be late for work. It was, Vietta thought, an odd request; one Debra had never made before.
Vietta soon went to bed, forgetting to call Debra Sue Carter a few hours later.
A High School Friend Drops By
Just before noon on December 8, Donna Johnson, a friend of Debra’s from high school, decided to drop by and pay her a visit. Donna was in town for the day to visit her parents and friends. One of them was Debra.
Her feet crunched under her as she walked up the narrow outside staircase to Debra’s apartment. It was glass. The window of her door was broken. Donna initially thought that maybe Debra had locked herself out and broke the window to get in.
Donna knocked on the door but no one answered. She could hear music playing on the radio in the background. She tried the door; it was unlocked. As she stepped inside, she knew something was terribly wrong.
Debra’s living room was a mess, sofa cushions were on the floor, and clothing was thrown about. On the wall, someone had written in red nail polish: “Jim Smith is next to die.” Donna yelled out Debra’s name, but she got no response.
She quickly made her way into Debra’s bedroom. The bed had been moved away from the wall, and all of the covers had been pulled off. She saw a foot. On the other side of the bed she found Debra face down, bloody and nude, with something written on her back.
Donna ran out of the apartment, fearing the murderer might still be in there.
Police Find More Messages
Eventually, the police and paramedics were called. It was too late, however. The paramedics were the first to get there; within moments of entering the apartment, one paramedic returned to the landing and threw up.
Detective Dennis Smith sealed the apartment. He saw the Jim Smith message on the wall, and knew who Smith was. On a small, white kitchen table, he found another message written in ketchup: “Don’t look fore us or else.”
When Smith went into the bedroom, he knelt beside Carter’s lifeless body. The killer had left a third message on Debra’s back: “Duke Graham.” He knew Graham as well. Upon further examination, it was determined that Debra had been stripped naked, raped and sodomized with a ketchup bottle, gagged with a bloody towel, and strangled with an electrical cord. The killer left one final message: “Die” was painted on Debra’s stomach in the same nail polish.
The coroner determined that Debra Sue Carter had sustained all her injuries while alive.
Funeral for Debra Sue Carter
Debra Sue Carter’s funeral was held on Saturday, December 11, 1982, in the chapel at Criswell Funeral Home. As is tradition, the funeral was open casket. It was obvious to everyone who attended that Debra Sue had been beaten; her face was swollen and bruised.
She was buried in her favorite jeans and boots, with a buckled cowboy belt and diamond horseshoe ring her mother was going to give her that Christmas. The high-collared lacy blouse hid the strangulation marks on her neck.
Debbie was buried in Rosedale Cemetery.
Police Catch a Break after Debra Sue Carter’s Murder Goes Cold
Despite the raft of evidence, the weeks and months passed with no arrests. Jim Smith was serving time in a state prison at the time of the murder and Duke Graham had a solid alibi. Police chased other leads and interviewed boyfriends, bouncers, and bartenders. There were no clear suspects.
They did have one lead, though. Ron Williamson, a former baseball hero who’d returned to his hometown following a career-ending injury, and his friend Dennis Fritz were known to frequent The Coachlight, and Debra had allegedly complained to a friend that they “made her nervous.” Glen Gore also told investigators he saw Ron Williamson bothering Debra Sue Carter at the club on the night of December 7, 1982.
Yet the eyewitness account was never verified. It would have been easy. Williamson was known as being a “carouser” and “loud mouth”—you knew when Williamson was in a bar. But no one remembers Williamson being there that night.
Police interviewed Williamson three months after the murder. Neither Williamson nor Fritz could provide a solid alibi since neither of them could remember where they were that night. Williamson agreed to take two polygraph tests, but both came up as being “inconclusive.”
The case went cold. For five years, police investigated but failed to gather enough evidence to convict anyone of murdering Debra Sue Carter.
The Investigation and Trial
In 1987, police finally got a break. A woman named Terri Holland, who had been arrested on fraud charges, said Williamson, who was already in prison for forging bank checks, confessed to her that he’d murdered Debra Sue Carter.
Debra Sue Carter’s body was exhumed after an incorrect analysis of fingerprints at the scene was discovered.
Williamson and Fritz were eventually charged on flimsy evidence. Investigators would catch a few more lucky breaks, though. While being interrogated, Williamson is alleged to have told police that he dreamed he stabbed and strangled Carter.
“Okay, I had a dream about killing Debbie, was on her, had a cord around her neck, stabbed her, frequently, pulled the rope tight around her neck.”
Seconds later, Williamson told police he “would never confess” and asked for a lawyer. Still, the crack officers and prosecutors would treat his statement as a confession.
Incredibly, an inmate Fritz shared a cell with claimed that Fritz confessed to the murder. This amazing confession came just one day before prosecutors would have been forced to drop the charges against Fritz.
In addition to questionable jail house confessions and dream analysis, investigators also conducted forensic testing on additional “evidence.”
This included “matching” 17 hairs recovered from the crime scene to both Williamson and Fritz. Hair analysis has, for decades, been called “junk science.”
Semen evidence from the crime scene was sent for blood testing. The results suggested that the killers were “non-secretors.” Both Williamson and Fritz were non-secretors. A secretor is someone who secretes their blood type of antigens into body fluids, like semen. A non-secretor does not. When used as evidence in trial, this, too, has been referred to as junk science.
Because of this evidence, the pair were charged with murdering Debra Sue Carter.
The jury convicted both Williamson and Fritz of murdering Debra Sue Carter. Fritz was sentenced to life in prison while Williamson was sent to death row.
The Innocent Project
After their convictions, both Williamson and Fritz filed separate appeals. As expected, those went nowhere. Fritz then contacted the Innocence Project. At that point, he learned that Williamson’s attorneys were looking to test the physical evidence.
DNA testing was not available when Williamson and Fritz were tried. But an overly aggressive prosecutor was.
In September 1994, after spending 11 years in prison for a crime they did not commit, a judge issued a stay. Williamson was only five days away from his scheduled execution.
The new tests showed conclusively that neither Williamson nor Fritz were the source of the semen found at the murder scene. Moreover, none of the so-called hairs that were matched to Williamson and Fritz belonged to them.
The semen did match someone on file, however. Glen Gore—the state’s main witness at trial. He was in imprisoned at the time, serving three 40-year sentences for kidnapping, first-degree burglary, and shooting with the intent to injure.
On April 15, 1999, Williamson and Fritz were released and exonerated. Bill Peterson, the unapologetic head district attorney, promised to carry on with the case, but not in the way most thought. Peterson continued to insist that Fritz and Williamson were involved in the murder of Debra Sue Carter and said, “We’ll figure this out.”
He never did quite get it right, and his arrogance cost the county.
Both Williamson and Fritz filed a civil lawsuit against the Pontotoc County district attorney and other defendants for developing “a false case that consisted of faulty forensic evidence, fictitious confessions reported by jailhouse snitches with overwhelming motives to lie, in addition to the self-serving lies of the actual murderer.”
They won an undisclosed sum of money.
Ron Williamson died on December 4, 2004 in an Oklahoma nursing home, not long after being diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. He was just 51 years of age.
Dennis Fritz lives in Missouri and advocates for the release of those who are wrongly convicted. He speaks publicly about his experience with the judicial system and life behind bars and serves on the board of directors of the Midwest Innocence Project.
In 2008, Fritz published a book about his life, Journey Toward Justice.
Glen Gore, the Real Killer, Sentenced
Despite police knowing that Gore was seen arguing with Carter the night she died and being the last person seen with Carter, he was not fingerprinted by police. Nor was he asked to provide saliva or hair samples. DNA did him in, though.
On June 24, 2003, Glen Gore was convicted of murdering Debra Sue Carter and sentenced to death. As the Carter family was leaving the courthouse, Debra’s exhausted father Charlie said, “Hopefully we won’t have to do this again.”
They did. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the verdict, arguing that Gore had been denied a fair trial.
Gore was convicted in his second trial in June 2006, and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Peggy Carter, Debra Sue’s mother, was in another room at the courthouse. When she heard the verdict, she said, “I’m OK, now.”