DNA profiling was too new to be of use when Ronald Williamson and Dennis Fritz were tried in 1988 for the rape-murder of a waitress in Ada, Okla. Prosecutors did have some scientific evidence, though. An expert from the state's crime laboratory testified that the 17 hairs found on the victim were an exact match to either Fritz or Williamson. In addition, the expert said that semen found on the victim could have come from the two men.
The scientific evidence, combined with testimony from two jailhouse informers and a convicted felon, satisfied the jury of the two defendants' guilt. Williamson, a local sports hero and former professional baseball player, was sentenced to death. Fritz, a junior high school science teacher and coach, received a life prison sentence.
When they walked to freedom after a decade behind bars, Williamson, 46, and Fritz, 49, became the 61st and 62nd inmates known to have been freed from prison in the United States because of post-conviction DNA testing. Defense lawyers say many more inmates could show they were wrongfully convicted if evidence used in their own trials was subjected to DNA analysis.
Dennis Fritz, left, and Ronald Williamson (Photo Credit: J. Pat Carter, Associated Press)
“We will get thousands of people out,” Barry Scheck, a lawyer for Fritz and professor at Yeshiva University's Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York, told The New York Times after the two men were released. Scheck, the DNA expert on O.J. Simpson's defense team, directs a legal clinic at the law school -- known as the Innocence Project -- that has used DNA testing to challenge convictions in scores of cases.
Fritz had been asking for DNA testing since as early as 1989, but officials turned him down. The DNA tests that exonerated the two men resulted instead from a federal court's decision in 1995 ordering a new trial for Williamson because of ineffective legal assistance in the 1988 trial. Williamson's new lawyers -- Mark Barrett and Sara Bonnell of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System -- requested the DNA test as part of the preparation for the new trial.
Law enforcement officials acknowledge the importance of DNA testing in examining the validity of convictions obtained before widespread use of the technology. “DNA aids the search for truth by exonerating the innocent,” Attorney General Janet Reno wrote three years ago in the introduction to a Justice Department report that examined 28 such cases.
Now the commission is working on recommendations that would ease the way for post-conviction DNA testing for some defendants. Meeting May 7 and 8 in Santa Fe, N.M., the commission approved a recommendation that prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges should allow DNA testing of evidence in old criminal cases if the results could conclusively establish the defendant's innocence.
“If everyone agrees that an exclusion would, in fact, exclude someone, everyone should agree to do the testing,” says Christopher Asplen, the commission's executive director.
The recommendations -- due to be prepared in final form within the next two months -- also include model state legislation to waive statutory deadlines that might block inmates' requests for DNA tests. Williamson's lawyer, Barrett, calls the recommendations “excellent” but said he would go further. “I think it would be worthwhile to have the DNA evidence automatically considered significant if the prosecution considered it significant when they were getting a conviction,” Barrett says.
Scheck, who serves on the DNA commission, says the group's recommendations will help inmates get DNA testing to challenge their convictions. But Asplen, a federal prosecutor, cautions against allowing such testing too freely. “We cannot open cases for victims and prosecutors where it would be frivolous to do so,” he says.
In its draft recommendation, the commission concludes, “The need for post-conviction DNA testing will wane over time. Within the decade, DNA testing with highly discriminatory results will be performed in all cases in which biological evidence is relevant, and advanced technologies will become commonplace in all laboratories.”