Judge orders release or new trial for 'Innocent Man' defendant

Karl Fontenot is seen in a police interview recording in the 1980s (left) and in a 2014 prison mugshot. (Photos provided)

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Karl Fontenot, one of the defendants profiled in the Netflix documentary and John Grisham book “The Innocent Man,” be either released from prison permanently or granted a new trial.

Fontenot was sentenced in 1985 for killing Donna “Denice” Haraway. Haraway, a convenience store clerk in Ada, was killed in 1984. Later that year, an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Agent interviewed Tommy Ward, who said he, Karl Fontenot, and another man robbed the store Haraway worked at, then stabbed and raped her before burning her body.

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Fontenot was arrested the next day. Both he and Ward confessed to the killing, but quickly recanted their confessions and have claimed for years that they were coerced into saying they killed Haraway. 

In United States District Judge James H. Payne’s 190-page order, he states that Fontenot, who told investigators in 1984 that his “confession” was merely a re-telling of a dream he had of Haraway’s murder, was one of three dream confessions “of dubious validity” he’d found.

“The players in this case, Pontotoc County District Attorney William Peterson, Ada Police Detective Dennis Smith, and Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Agent Gary Rogers, were all involved in these suspect confessions and were all involved in Petitioner’s case,” Payne wrote.

When Haraway’s body was found in 1986, two years after she disappeared, it was discovered she had been shot, not stabbed as Fontenot had told investigators. There was no evidence she had been raped or set on fire, as Fontenot had said in his “dream confession.”

Nevertheless, Fontenot and Ward were both convicted of Haraway’s murder, though they have maintained their innocence for decades. Both Fontenot and Ward were convicted and sentenced to death before Haraway’s body found in rural Hughes County. However, the two men would later be re-tried and sentenced to life without parole.

Grisham wrote his book in 2006, though the case picked up steam in 2018 upon the release of a Netflix documentary that detailed a number of allegedly dubious murder convictions in Ada in the 1980s. 

In his order, Payne excoriated both the Pontotoc County District Attorney’s Office and law enforcement in the Fontenot case, saying the crime scene had not been secured, evidence had not been preserved, multiple violations of Fontenot’s constitutional rights had occurred including his attorney-client privilege, prosecutors knowingly used false testimony and withheld exculpatory evidence from Fontenot’s attorneys, threatened or harassed witnesses whose testimony would have helped corroborate Fontenot’s alibi, and that “The Ada Police Department’s Complete Lack of Training to Handle Major Crimes Resulted in an Incompetent Police Investigation.” 

“Not one detail of Mr. Fontenot’s confession could ever be corroborated with any evidence in the case,” Payne wrote. 

In January, shortly after the release of the Netflix series, more than 300 pages of previously unreleased documents related to the case were discovered at the Ada Police Department after Ward’s attorneys subpoenaed the police department for records related to the case. However, Fontenot’s attorneys, who had requested related records from the Ada Police Department in 2017, were not given those records until they contacted Ada’s city attorney a month after the documents’ discovery. Ada police said they only discovered the boxes of documents after they had been moved to a new evidence room.

Those newly-discovered records proved to be crucial in Payne’s ruling Wednesday.

“The investigation into Mr. Fontenot’s case has revealed both documents and witness statements that prove an alibi defense, and substantiate proof of the ineptness of the police Investigation,” Payne wrote. “The newly discovered evidence undermines the prosecutor’s weak case and provides proof of Mr. Fontenot’s probable innocence.”

Payne provides examples of information that was never turned over to Fontenot’s trial attorneys — individuals who told police they saw Fontenot at a party the night of Haraway’s disappearance or said that a party occurred that night, harassing telephone calls Haraway had been receiving at the store in the weeks before her disappearance, witnesses who recanted earlier statements linking Fontenot with Haraway’s disappearance, and other evidence that would have been beneficial to Fontenot’s defense.

One piece of evidence withheld was part of a medical examiner’s report stating that it appeared that Haraway had given birth at some point in her life. Though she did not have a child prior to her disappearance, court records indicate that she told a friend shortly before her disappearance that she was pregnant.

“This previously undisclosed evidence is a startling revelation in this case,” Payne wrote. “If Mrs. Haraway was three months pregnant at the time of her abduction, which the evidence indicated, then it was impossible for Mr. Fontenot to have killed Mrs. Haraway on April 28, 1984.”

Payne also states that the Pontotoc County District Attorney’s Office committed “fraud on the court” when it knowingly used false testimony of a jailhouse snitch who said she heard Fontenot talking about the crime and testified that she had no agreement with prosecutors in exchange for testimony. Prosecutors, Payne wrote, tried to conceal the agreement afterward.

Payne’s ruling also states that prosecutors illegally withheld information from not just Fontenot, but in other cases as well.

“The Pontotoc County District Attorney’s Office had a pattern and practice of not divulging documents gathered from a variety of law enforcement agencies,” Payne wrote. “This pattern began during Mr. Fontenot’s 1985 pretrial proceedings, his 1987 retrial proceedings, his 1992 resentencing, his 2014 post-conviction proceedings, and has continued throughout the current proceedings.”

Rob Ridenour, Fontenot’s attorney, told The Frontier on Wednesday that he expects the state to appeal Payne’s decision.

Ridenour said he has yet to tell Fontenot about the update.

“I requested a visit with him (through the prison system) but I haven’t heard back,” he said. “It’s a good day.”

Alex Gerszewski, press secretary for Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, said Wednesday afternoon that the office is still reviewing Payne’s 190-page ruling, and could not yet comment on it.

Ward’s attorney Gregory Swygert said he had not finished reading the order Wednesday evening. Though there are several legal differences between Ward’s case and Fontenot’s, Swygert said he was happy and encouraged to hear the news of Payne’s ruling.

“This gives us hope,” Swygert said. “It’s a good day.”

Ward’s case

Ward’s attorneys recently filed motions in state court requesting they be allowed to conduct additional discovery and interviews, saying the newly disclosed documents point to the existence of other records that have yet to be produced.

According to court filings in the case, some of the newly-acquired records point toward investigators being given a description of a blouse Haraway was thought to be wearing when she disappeared prior to Ward describing the blouse in his confession. When Haraway’s body was discovered two years later, she was wearing a different shirt than the one described by Ward, and attorneys have said they believe the information about the blouse was given to Ward by investigators during an interrogation.

Ward’s attorneys are asking the court to require the OSBI and Ada Police to make another check of their available records related to the case, as well as requests additional police interview reports, notes and other documents.

Ward’s filing also states that, after Haraway’s disappearance, investigators believed Haraway may have been part of what his attorneys said was a pattern of convenience store abductions in the Ada area.

In the filing, Ward’s attorneys state that in April 1983, Patty Hamilton was abducted from the Seminole convenience store where she worked. Her body would not be found until 1991. In November of 1983, a young woman was abducted at gunpoint from a Shawnee convenience store by two men in a white van. The men raped the victim and threatened to kill her, but she survived, and her father later called the Ada Police department after Haraway’s disappearance to inform them of similarities between the cases, Ward’s attorneys state.

Some of the newly-released documents show that the OSBI was interested in white vans in relation to Haraway’s disappearance, the filing states.

“In spite of prosecutors’ insistence at trial that there were no other suspects, these documents suggest the existence of additional documents related to these possible suspects,which are needed to facilitate the review of Mr. Ward’s petition,” Ward’s attorneys wrote.

Ward’s attorneys are also seeking to depose Haraway’s husband Steve Haraway and “alternate suspect” Billy Charley, according to court records.

The Frontier is a nonprofit focusing on investigative and watchdog journalism. For more information or to donate, go to www.readfrontier.org.

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