As viewers make their way through the newly released Netflix series “The Innocent Man,” The Ada News Chief Photographer, Richard R. Barron, looks back on the events of April 15, 1999 — the day Ron Williamson and Dennis Fitz were released from prison after serving 12 years for crimes the court later determined they did not commit.
The day before we were slated to cover the release of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz on April 15, 1999, Ada Evening News Editor Steve Boggs, staff reporter Ann Kelley and I formulated a plan to get the court appearance, which we knew would likely be the biggest single news event of the year, in that day’s paper. Since the event was scheduled for late morning, we requested a late deadline. The plan was to hold the front page, the deadline for which was normally 10:30 a.m., for my pictures and Ann’s story.
At the Pontotoc County Courthouse, hundreds of media members from across the state and the nation had gathered. Their presence magnified our efforts: If NBC and the The New York Times beat us at our own game, we felt, we didn’t deserve to be Ada’s newspaper.
Judge Tom Landrith had a gallery set aside for the media, the area normally reserved for juries. Before the hearing started, he told us we would be required to remain in that area until Fritz and Williamson had left the courtroom and were gone for a short period of time. When the hearing started, he ordered the audience to remain as well. He also warned that he wouldn’t tolerate outbursts of any kind, including applause or booing.
As we in the media watched, recorded and photographed the proceedings, we all made basically the same images, hitting all the same high points.
After Fritz and Williamson left the courtroom, we all remained in our positions until Landrith dismissed us. It was awkwardly silent.
Unfortunately, getting my images, which were still made on film, processed and scanned meant I would need to leave the courthouse immediately and return to the office, and I wouldn’t be able to stick around for follow-up photos. I raced back to the office and got my film souped (processed) and scanned, and copied to a server so the editor could get it on the page, right about the same time Ann put the finishing touches on the story. We started the presses at about 1 p.m.
Later in the afternoon, we attended a press conference at Ada’s Wintersmith Lodge, and my newspaper and I felt proud and successful when attorneys for Fritz and Williamson held up our front page with victorious smiles on their faces.