UPDATE Feb 23, 2024: A Tulsa County judge granted a motion to suppress the 1984 confession of Karl Fontenot on Friday afternoon, but stopped short of addressing the defense’s motion to dismiss the case. The state has 30 days to appeal the ruling to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.

Fontenot, who was in the courtroom in Tulsa on Friday, declined to comment, but early in the hearing seemed to be in good spirits, speaking and joking with supporters and attorneys who sat next to him as his attorneys and prosecutor Kyle Cabelka, who appeared by phone, negotiated a proposal to suppress the confession behind closed doors.

However, when one of Fontenot’s attorneys emerged to tell him that there would be no decision on whether to dismiss the case that day, Fontenot, overcome with emotion, began to sob, and quickly walked out of the courtroom.

Tulsa County District Judge Clifford Smith granted the defense’s request that Fontenot’s confession be suppressed, with the stipulations negotiated by the defense and prosecution that adopted the findings of fact issued by the 10th Circuit in 2021, that no new evidence in the case has come to light since those findings were issued and that the loss of so much evidence from the original trial and unavailability of the witnesses from the original case “has compromised both sides’ ability to move forward with this case.”

Original story is below.

One of two Oklahoma men accused of kidnapping a woman from an Ada convenience store and killing her in 1984 is hoping to have his murder charge dismissed on Friday.

Karl Fontenot, 59, along with co-defendant Tommy Ward, 63, were twice found guilty of first degree murder in the death of 24-year-old Ada convenience store clerk Donna “Denise” Haraway and eventually sentenced to life in prison.

Fontenot and Ward have both fought separate, yet intertwined, legal battles for decades to have their convictions overturned.

Nearly 40 years after Haraway’s disappearance, Fontenot faces a hearing Friday in Tulsa County District Court  that could end with the murder charge against him being dismissed. The case was originally filed in Pontotoc County, but thee prosecutor there recused himself after Fontenot’s conviction was overturned by a federal court, citing the appearance of a conflict.

A key element in Fontenot’s and Ward’s convictions were confessions that both men initially gave to investigators. Both later recanted and said they were coerced by authorities into giving false confessions with details allegedly fed to them during questioning by law enforcement.

When Haraway’s remains were discovered in a rural area more than a year after she went missing, numerous details in the confessions did not match the forensic evidence found on and around Haraway.

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Ward and Fontenot’s cases were the subject of a 2006 John Grisham book The Innocent Man and a 2018 Netflix documentary of the same as well as the 1987 book Dreams of Ada by Robert Mayer.

In late 2018, shortly after the Netflix documentary was released, attorneys for Ward said a trove of hundreds of pages of documents related to the cases that the men’s attorneys had never seen were discovered in an Ada Police Department evidence room. The boxes contained records of interviews, alternate suspects and other leads that prosecutors and police were legally required to be turned over to the defense teams, the attorneys said.

After the newly-discovered documents were revealed, a federal judge overturned Fontenot’s conviction and ordered him to be released from prison or for the state to hold a new trial. The state’s appeals in Fontenot’s case were unsuccessful.

A state judge also ordered that Ward’s conviction be overturned, citing the newly discovered evidence and writing that the records showed investigators knowingly withheld information from his attorneys, violating his constitutional rights. But the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals later overturned the ruling. Ward’s case is now being heard in federal court. He remains in prison.

In October 2022, prosecutors decided to re-file the murder charge against Fontenot, who had been released from prison after his successful appeal. But by August 2023, prosecutors were having difficulty finding witnesses from the previous two trials, stating that “the state has had little contact with most of the witnesses,” according to court records.  Dozens of witnesses had died since the 1980s and contact information for surviving witnesses was “scarce or nonexistent.”

In December, Tulsa County District Judge Clifford Smith rejected the prosecution’s request that transcripts of witness testimony from the previous cases and Fontenot’s 1984 confession be admitted as evidence, writing that the confession had already been shown to be “fatally unreliable.”

Earlier this month, Fontenot’s attorney Tiffany R. Murphy filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing there was no new evidence to back up his confession from the 1980s. 

“I am hopeful,” Murphy told The Frontier. “This year in April will be 40 years.” 

District 5 District Attorney Kyle Cabelka, who is the prosecutor in the case, was out of office on Wednesday and did not return a phone message from The Frontier.