Oxygen Insider Exclusive!

Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, breaking news, sweepstakes, and more!

Sign Up for Free to View
Crime News Movies & TV

Who Was Debra Sue Carter, The First Victim In ‘The Innocent Man?'

In 1982, Debra Sue Carter was found murdered in her own home, with a bizarre message written on her back and other ominous writings scrawled about her Ada, Oklahoma apartment.

By Gina Tron

Debra Sue Carter’s murder case, and the tragic events surrounding it, was thrust into the spotlight after John Grisham’s first non-fiction book, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town,” was published in 2006.

Now, a new Netflix docu-series "The Innocent Man” will bring attention yet again to the compelling yet harrowing case, which had controversial ramifications that stretched far beyond her 1982 death.

Two men were wrongly convicted in 1988 for Carter’s brutal rape and death, including Ron Williamson, who Grisham focuses his book heavily on. Both Williamson and the other man were certainly victims of this heinous crime. But, what about the crime's initial victim, Carter? She was just 21 years old and had her whole life in front of her before she was discovered dead inside her home: face down, naked, and bloody, with an eerie message written on her back on December 8, 1982.

So, who was Carter?

A hard worker

She worked part-time as a cocktail waitress, a job she juggled along with three other part-time jobs, one of which was baby-sitting. One of her cocktail waitressing gigs was at The Coachlight Club, where she was seen arguing with Gore the night before she was found dead.


Grisham noted that she was “a pretty girl, dark-haired, slender, athletic, popular with the boys, and very independent.”


Carter owned her own car and lived by herself in a three-room apartment above a garage. 

Close to family

She was very close to her mother, Grishman noted. She was raised in the church and her mom, Peggy Stillwell, was worried about how much time she was spending in nightclubs, according to Grisham’s book. 

A small town girl

Ada is a small, old oil town located in southeast Oklahoma. At the time, it had 16,000 residents where the “Bible Belt runs hard through,” according to Grisham’s book.  Doors were left open during the day. Murder wasn’t typically at the forefront of the average resident’s mind.

A tragically brutal ending

An electrical cord was found wrapped around her neck, likely used to strangle her to death. Her underwear was found torn and a bloody washcloth was discovered in her mouth. Carter’s apartment was in a state of chaos and disarray, with a bloody handprint on the wall and poorly written messages etched on the walls. The messages seemingly pointed to those who were later wrongly convicted.

WARNING: Major Spoilers Ahead!

Williamson and Dennis Fritz were subsequently released once DNA proved their innocence years later. Williamson, a former minor league baseball player who served 11 years on death row before the Innocence Project helped him get released in 1999. He was cleared just five days before he was scheduled to be executed.

Meanwhile, the real killer, Glen Gore, (who testified against both men), wasn’t convicted until 2003. 

[Photo Credit: Associated Press]