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Journey toward justice

How a prosecutor's pursuit of justice shattered a man's life.

Dennis Fritz was an ordinary man living an ordinary life in Ada , Oklahoma . A school teacher whose wife was brutally murdered in 1975, Dennis was raising his young daughter on his own. On the fateful evening of May 8, 1987 , Dennis was enveloped by a sudden foreboding sensation. He could not explain the eerie feeling in his gut-the sense that something is about to happen. Two hours later, he was under arrest, handcuffed and on his way to jail on charges of rape and murder. Read excerpts of the book, below.

The Arrest
I jumped back in surprise as I approached the doorway. There on the porch in the dark stood three men—two dressed in suits, one in casual wear—listening at the screen door. All three wore the same unpleasant, discourteous expression, an expression that didn’t change as I neared the door.

Half-dazed and confused, I turned on the porch light and uttered, “Can I do something for you gentlemen?”

There was a moment of awkwardness before the man in the polo shirt, the one closest to the screen door, broke his silence by asking in a deep baritone, “Is your name Dennis Fritz?” His question set my nerves on edge as his look penetrated my face. I didn’t recognize him. His straightforward approach puzzled me, as though he may have had some business with me before.

From behind me in the hallway I heard Mom call out, “Son, Who is…talking…late.” I could barely distinguish her words, let alone give her an answer. I stood riveted in curiosity and fear by the triple set of dagger glares from the men who were awaiting my response.

I pushed open the screen door a few inches and looked beyond the men on the porch. Something moved in the front yard. By the glow of the porch light, I was able to make out a handful of men in uniforms crouching on the lawn. I froze as I counted. There were maybe twenty officers altogether, all pointing what appeared to be automatic weapons at me. To my left, and then to my right beyond the screen, more uniformed officers slid into position as I held onto the door handle. Likewise, their weapon barrels were trained at me. I felt woozy. Courage drained from me in a flash as I stammered to answer the interrogator’s question:

“Yes, my name is Dennis.” I took a breath and blurted out “What’s the matter?”

Without acknowledging may question, one of the strangers in a suit repeated his partner’s question: “Is your full name Dennis Fritz?”

Something—I didn’t know what—was seriously wrong with this situation. In the seconds before I answered, I determined that they were making a big mistake. I didn’t even live here. Wasn’t it possible that there were two Dennis Fritzes in this city, and that they had the wrong one? I hadn’t done anything that warranted a SWAT team. My mind struggled to understand what was playing out. Every sound, every motion, every smell, every sensation came to me in slow motion, like I was watching a movie on a giant three-dimensional panoramic screen.

“Yes, my name is Dennis Fritz,” I answered. —Page 7

The Conviction

With their eyes and heads held low, the jury walked in and somberly took their assigned seats. The majority of the female jurors starred downward with a blank expression upon their rigid faces. Three of the four male jurors gazed straight ahead. Just as Jones asked the jury foreman if the jury had reached a verdict, Cecil Smith arched his head in my direction and looked squarely at me, as if to let me know that I was getting what I deserved. I didn’t have to hear the jury’s verdict being read. I already knew what the outcome was going to be—just as I had known from day one of the trial.

“Mr. Sanders, would you please hand the papers to the bailiff, please?”

“Read the verdict, please,” requested Jones.

“Verdict Criminal, State of Oklahoma, Country of Pontotoc in District Court, the State of Oklahoma versus Dennis L. Fritz, Defendant, Case Number CRF-87-90. We the jury drawn, impaneled and sworn in the above entitled cause do upon our oaths find the defendant guilty of Murder in the First Degree. Signed, Wayne Sanders, Foreman.”

Though I had mentally prepared myself for a guilty verdict, I wasn’t prepared for the torrent of feelings that swept through me. I lowered my head and remained seated, feeling for the first time a sense of paralysis as I listened to the muffled sobs of Mom and Aunt Wilma behind me. The lights in the courtroom swirled and spun as I grew weak and numb with the reality that I had just been found guilty of a murder that I knew nothing about. I had no reserve of energy or passion left to stand and shout to the jury that they had made a terrible mistake. Instead, my thoughts shifted to more immediate questions: How would Elizabeth react after hearing this news, how would Mom and Aunt Wilma deal with this decision physically and emotionally, and finally, how would I face this same panel of strangers as they decided whether I lived or died? I didn’t look at Greg. I couldn’t.

Jones’s voice brought me back to the present. He read down through the roster of jurors and polled their verdicts one by one. Greg had said this would happen as a matter of procedure. No one faltered as they each stated their verdict: “Guilty.” “Guilty.” “Guilty....” Their words of finality pounded against my eardrums. —Page 294

One day before freedom

I got back up in my bunk and pondered the many questions that plagued my mind. When I awoke to the jangle of keys in the door, I realized that I must have dozed off for a while. The guard said that there were some people there to see me. I followed him to the visiting room.

As I turned to enter, I saw a beautiful young woman standing in front of me. In a split second, I realized that this radiant woman with the beautiful smile was Elizabeth. My blessed mother was standing by her side. An uncontrollable feeling welled up in my chest and I began to cry. In that very same visiting room years earlier I had last seen Elizabeth as a young girl. Now she was grown up. She looked so much like her mother. We stood for a moment, uncertain about what to do as we stared at each other, our faces quivering with emotion. Then we lunged into each other’s arms, embracing each other with every ounce of emotion that had been locked away inside us for the past twelve years. With our hearts, minds, and bodies united, we embraced for what seemed like a lifetime—the lifetime that we had been cheated out of.

“Daddy, you are going home tomorrow,” Elizabeth said, her voice trembling. I could feel her hot tears falling on my neck and shoulders. “I’ve missed you and love you so much, Dad.”
—Page 447

Exoneration 4/15/99

Judge Landrith cleared his throat and then spoke: “What you’ve seen is what I believe to be a truly non-adversarial search for the truth. We cannot replace the twelve years these defendants have been incarcerated, nor can we forget Debbie Carter. All we can do is move forward. What this day is is a day of freedom. Mr. Williamson, Mr. Fritz, you are free to leave this courthouse.” A smile crept over his face as he hanged his gavel.

As his words were being spoken, I closed my eyes, lifted my head to heaven, and said the words, “Thank you, Jesus.” When I opened my eyes again, my mother and daughter were rushing to my side, where they wrapped their arms tightly around me. Their tears flowed freely as we embraced. “Oh, Dad, I love you so much. Don’t ever leave me again,” Elizabeth cried from the bottom of her heart. My mother softly kissed my cheek with the tenderness that only a mother could impart. “Son, I love you so very much. You are going home to stay and I will always be there for you, no matter what,” she said in my ear.

Before he was swept into a swarm of people who wanted interviews and pictures, Barry hugged me with all the love and compassion that he had to give. He had come to my rescue and saved my life. —Page 452