Attorneys for Karl Fontenot, one of the defendants serving a life sentence for the 1984 murder of Denice Haraway in Ada, are asking a federal judge to sanction the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, Ada City Attorney Frank Stout and Ada Police Chief Mike Miller after hundreds of pages of “exculpatory evidence” were apparently found in the Ada Police Department.
In court filings, Fontenot’s attorneys claim that the evidence was turned over to attorneys for Tommy Ward, a co-defendant in the Haraway case, but never disclosed to Fontenot’s attorneys despite prior subpoenas seeking all police reports and evidence.
Fontenot and Ward were subjects of a John Grisham book — and a wildly popular recent Netflix documentary — titled “The Innocent Man.” The book and movie looked at two circa-1980s murders in Ada, that of Debbie Carter and, later, Haraway.
Two men, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, were convicted of murdering Carter but were eventually freed thanks to advances in DNA evidence testing. Fontenot and Ward remain in prison for killing Haraway, though each have claimed their innocence for decades.
Fontenot’s attorneys, Tiffany R. Murphy and Robert Ridenour, said in a motion for sanctions filed Feb. 7 that “over 300 pages of police reports,” some of which contain witnesses accounts of suspects who do not match Fontenot’s description, as well as letters from Fontenot to his first attorney identifying people who could vouch for his alibi, were turned over to Ward’s attorneys earlier this year. It was only through Ward’s attorney that Fontenot’s lawyers learned of the documents and a box containing “six sealed envelopes” with evidence that appears to have been tested at a lab. Court filing indicate attorneys for both sides intended to meet soon to open that box.
The petition requests that Fontenot be released on bond pending the outcome of his case, that a protective order be issued for all files in the state’s custody pertaining to Fontenot’s and Ward’s case, that Fontenot be allowed to amend his petition for a writ of habeas corpus and that a hearing be scheduled to learn the details of how the documents were “discovered.”
“What these police reports highlight is at the core problem with this case: These actors – district attorney and law enforcement – have blatantly flaunted our constitutional principles for decades,” Fontenot’s attorneys wrote. “This Court should grant a hearing to ascertain why police records said to not exist suddenly were located.”
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge James Payne granted Fontenot’s request to file a second amended habeas corpus petition within the next 30 days, but wrote that Fontenot’s motion for sanctions and request for hearing would be addressed in a separate order that has yet to be filed.
Fontenot’s attorneys accused Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter’s office, as well as the Ada Police Department and Stout of being engaged in “a continuing pattern of unethical behavior and disregard for the rule of law.”
The Attorney General’s Office, in a response to Fontenot’s attorneys, said that the existence of the apparently newly-found documents were not known to the respondents and was “never hidden deliberately.”
The Attorney General’s Office also stated that Fontenot, who confessed to the crime (though he said he was coerced into doing so and later recanted,) should not be granted bond as “no Court has ever determined that Petitioner did not commit the crimes against Mrs. Haraway.”
Fontenot’s lawyers, in a court filing, said they were “dumbfounded to learn of the ‘discovery’ of the Ada Police Department reports,” noting they had served a subpoena to the department in 2017 for documents “and had received nothing in response.”
“In March 2017, Counsel had received a letter in response to the subpoena informing Counsel that the City Attorney Frank Stout had asked about responsive documents but been told the police department ‘no longer has any of the documents requested.’”
“Some examples” of the supposed “exculpatory and impeachment evidence” found in the new reports includes:
- “What appear to be” confidential letters written by Fontenot in yellow legal pad to his trial attorney, George Butner. In the letters, his attorneys state, Fontenot “discusses his fears and concerns about the upcoming trial, provides names of people who can corroborate his alibi, and expresses his frustration with the people in the Pontotoc County Jail playing games with him. More importantly, he recants his confession and detailed police attempts to make him confess.”
- A previously undisclosed handwritten report taken from Gene Whelchel (a witness to Haraway’s disappearance) about his description of the men he had seen.” The description identifies the potential suspects as one having “muscular arms, a narrow waist and larger shoulders and acne scars. The other potential suspect was described as “a neat looking guy” with an athletic build and blonde hair. “These details were never provided to defense counsel and … Mr. Fontenot was neither muscular … or a neat looking guy.”
- An interview with an Ada newspaper reporter named James Boardman whose “statements or existence have never before been disclosed to Mr. Fontenot.” Boardman, Fontenot’s attorneys state, was at the McAnally store (where Haraway was allegedly taken from) on the day of her disappearance and reported to police seeing two men “acting funny.” “Apparently he was shown pictures of Mr. Fontenot … he did not identify Mr. Fontenot as one of the men he saw.”
Fontenot’s attorneys state that Boardman’s “testimony is a bombshell” and that “It provides alternative suspects. Mr. Boardman could have testified that he was at McAnally’s and saw men acting strangely while Mrs. Haraway was there. It puts in doubt the timeline the prosecution used at Mr. Fontenot’s trial, which tried to show Mrs. Haraway disappeared later in the day.
“It certainly provided an avenue of investigation that was denied Mr. Fontenot.”