When Pontotoc County prosecutors wanted to ensure convictions for suspects in the 1982 murder of Debra Sue Carter and 1984 murder of Donna “Denice” Haraway, they found an ally in a jailhouse snitch named Terri Holland.
Holland, whose maiden name was Terri Denise McCartney, had a somewhat lengthy, but mostly small-time, rapsheet. Oklahoma prison records show at least seven convictions stretching back decades, mostly for drugs or forgery crimes.
But Holland, who died in 2012, apparently had other skills as well. In an opinion handed down Wednesday by U.S. District Judge James Payne, he wrote that Holland was used multiple times by Pontotoc County prosecutors in order to win convictions in some of the biggest cases in that county’s history.
And for that, she was rewarded. Payne wrote that Holland “received substantial benefits” in return for assisting the district attorney.
Prosecutors, Payne alleged, never disclosed those benefits — an omission the federal judge called “extremely probative” and could, in part, lead to release or new trials for Karl Fontenot and Tommy Ward.
In both the Carter and Haraway cases, there wasn’t physical evidence to tie the men who were eventually convicted (Ron Williamson, Dennis Fritz, Fontenot, and Ward) to the crimes, but police had their suspect. And Holland’s testimony helped seal the deal in court.
The Pontotoc County District Attorney’s Office charged Ron Williamson with killing Carter. Williamson, a former baseball standout, had been drafted by the Oakland Athletics, but washed out and returned to the Ada area.
During Williamson’s trial, Holland testified that while she and Williamson were both in the Pontotoc County Jail in 1984, she overheard Williamson claim to have killed Carter. In John Grisham’s book, “The Innocent Man,” he wrote that Holland may have had a personal vendetta against Ron Williamson, whom she believed had raped her sister, who later took her own life.
Carter, 21, was raped, sodomized and strangled to death.
Williamson was sentenced to death, and his co-defendant Dennis Fritz was sentenced to life in prison. DNA evidence later exonerated both men, and Williamson’s life was spared. He and Fritz were released from prison in 1999. Williamson later died of cirrhosis in 2004.
Holland’s testimony had apparently been untrue.
About a year later, it was Holland’s time to shine again.
Haraway, a 24-year-old convenience store clerk, disappeared in 1984. Investigators interviewed Tommy Ward, who told them he and Fontenot had been fishing together at the time of Haraway’s disappearance. Both Ward and Fontenot admitted following question to killing Haraway, though they each recanted their confessions. Fontenot said he had merely dreamed that he had killed Haraway, something chronicled in a book by Robert Mayer titled “Dreams of Ada.”
Holland was known for her ability to overhear incriminating statements, and, Payne wrote, had “strategically” been placed by the Pontotoc County Sheriff’s Office in a cell across from Fontenot for nine days.
According to testimony given by Holland, she said she struck up a conversation with Fontentot, who told her that he, Ward, and a man named Odell Titsworth, took part in Haraway’s killing. She said Fontenot confessed to raping Haraway after Titsworth had stabbed her to death. The trio then poured gasoline on the body and burned it, Holland testified Fontenot told her.
But that never happened. When Haraway’s body was found in 1986, evidence showed she had been shot in the head, not stabbed.
At that point Fontenot and Ward had already been convicted and sentenced to death, though they were later retried and sentenced to life in prison, where they remain. On Wednesday, Payne ruled that Fontenot be either given a new trial — perhaps an unlikely outcome since three decades have passed and most witnesses are gone or deceased — or released from prison permanently.
While Holland’s testimony helped put Fontenot and Ward behind bars, it might ultimately help get them released as well.
Payne mentioned several times in his 190-page order that Holland’s testimony, and the apparent coverup of its inaccuracies by prosecutors, played a part in his decision to order Fontenot to be tried again or permanently released from prison.
Holland’s recompense for her testimony was apparently never revealed by the state. Payne wrote in his order that Holland was asked by Fontenot’s attorney during trial if she was benefiting as a result of her testimony, and said no.
But she was. According to Payne, her husband, Randall Holland, later testified that his wife cut a deal with District Attorney Bill Peterson in exchange for the testimony. Randall was facing 40 years in prison, but if Terri would testify that Fontenot confessed to Haraway’s murder, Randall would only get a seven-year sentence, and he and Terri would be allowed to get married while he was incarcerated.
It was a win-win proposition for both Holland and the Pontotoc County District Attorneys office, who desperately needed convictions in the Carter and Haraway murder cases.
“The state … utilized the statement of the jailhouse snitch, Terri Holland (McCartney,) and denied any deal had taken place in exchange for her testimony,” Payne wrote. “This is extremely probative in light of the new evidence presented which includes the affidavit of her husband and court documents proving otherwise.”
Payne wrote that the prosecutor in Fontenot’s case “warrants special condemnation” for concealing the agreement that had been made with Holland from Fontenot’s attorneys.
Read the full text of U.S. District Judge James Payne’s order in the Karl Fontenot case