A federal appeals court has upheld a decision to overturn the conviction of one of two men in the 1985 kidnapping and murder of an Ada convenience store worker.
Along with co-defendant Tommy Ward, Karl Fontenot was convicted twice in the kidnapping and murder of Donna Denise Haraway from an Ada convenience store in 1984 and sentenced to life without parole. A federal judge in Muskogee overturned Fontenot’s conviction in late 2019. The judge ruled that Fontenot had legitimate claims of innocence and that investigators knew a confession he made but later recanted was of dubious validity.
Fontenot was released from prison in 2019 pending the outcome of the state’s appeal to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case gained national attention in 2006 after author John Grisham published The Innocent Man, a nonfiction book that touched on the case in addition to a number of other dubious murder convictions in Ada in the 1980s. Public interest in the case was reignited when the book was adapted into a 2018 Netflix documentary of the same name and that went into further details about the case.
In early 2019, a trove of previously-unreleased case documents were uncovered at the Ada Police Department by Ward’s attorneys. Several of the documents have been used in court to raise questions about potential misconduct by investigators, the fairness of the two men’s trials and their guilt in Haraway’s murder.
While Fontenot has been free on bond since late 2019, Ward remains incarcerated. In Ward’s case, a state judge overturned his conviction in December, but the Attorney General’s Office appealed the case to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which ruled he was to remain incarcerated during the appeal. Oral arguments have yet to take place in that case.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel for the 10th Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling overturning Fontenot’s conviction by a 2-1 margin, and gave the state 120 days to refile charges against Fontenot, though it is unclear whether that will happen.
A spokesman for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office said the state’s attorneys were still reviewing the 178-page order by the 10th Circuit.
The state could still file charges again against Fontenot, request a rehearing from the 10th Circuit’s full panel of judges or appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Fontenot’s attorney, Tiffany Murphy, told The Frontier she told Fontenot about the appeals court decision on Tuesday and that he was “very excited and glad to hear it.”
Murphy said one of the issues in the opinion that stood out was the court’s findings that the confession offered by Fontenot — one of the biggest pieces of evidence that led to his conviction — was likely a false confession.
“People say ‘he confessed, that should be the end of it,’” Murphy said. “It’s important to recognize this is now the second court … saying this confession is not backed up by anything, it’s refuted at every turn.”
Murphy said she was pleased with the outcome.
“I’m very happy, very relieved for Karl and his continuing quest for innocence to prove the fact that he had nothing to do with Donna Denice Haraway’s murder,” Murphy said.
The appeals court opinion points out discrepancies in the state’s case and found that evidence favorable to Fontenot was withheld by the prosecution
The ruling found that there was evidence of Fontenot’s innocence, including statements provided by other witnesses that placed Fontenot at a party at the time of Haraway’s disappearance, a string of obscene phone calls to Haraway before her disappearance, and affidavits from witnesses stating that Fontenot did not resemble the individuals who were seen in the store during Haraway’s disappearance.
The ruling went through an in-depth examination of the case, its witnesses, the suspect descriptions from witnesses, obscene phone calls to Haraway that were never investigated, Ward’s and Fontenot’s confessions to Haraway’s kidnapping and murder that both men recanted days later, saying that police had fed them details they used in their confessions.
Later, when Haraway’s body was discovered, details of that confession did not match the evidence, such as what Haraway was wearing, how she was killed and where her body was taken.
The appeals court said in its opinion that the state had “an extremely weak case against Mr. Fontenot.”
“The State lacked a plausible motive and had no physical evidence linking Mr. Fontenot to the crime,” it said.