Karl Fontenot is seen in a still image from an interview he did with Ada police in the 1980s. Courtesy

After more than 30 years in prison for a murder he’s long said he didn’t commit, Karl Fontenot is slowly inching his way toward the growing possibility of release.

Late last week, U.S. District Judge James H. Payne denied the state of Oklahoma’s appeal of Payne’s earlier order that Fontenot — whose case has been chronicled in two books and a Netflix documentary series — be released from prison or granted a new trial in 120 days.

Fontenot is serving a life sentence in the 1984 killing of Ada convenience store clerk Donna “Denice” Haraway, though her body was not found until 1986, after Fontenot’s conviction. Prior to the discovery of Haraway’s body, 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.

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. Ward, who is also serving a life sentence in the case, is also seeking to have his conviction overturned, though his case is in state court.

Attorneys for the state argued in their appeal that if the stay was not granted, the state would suffer “irreparable injury,” since it is unlikely the appeal could be heard by the 10th Circuit before the end of the 120-day time frame.

In response, Fontenot’s attorneys said their client was not a flight risk, since after three decades in prison he had no means to flee should he be released from prison and a new trial be ordered. Further, Fontenot’s attorneys argued, years of damage have already been done to Fontenot, who, if his claim is to be believed, has spent the majority of his life in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Payne, in his order denying the state’s motion, said the state “failed to meet the burden required to overcome the presumption of correctness of this court’s initial custody determination.”

Payne, in August, said 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 Pontotoc County 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.”

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.

Attorneys for the state argued that Payne, who played a role in the eventual release of Ron Williamson, another Ada man convicted in the 1980s of a high-profile murder, “uncritically” accepted evidence presented by Fontenot’s attorneys.

Now the stage is clear for perhaps the biggest development in Fontenot’s case in decades as, under Payne’s 120-day order, Fontenot would have to be released and/or granted a new trial by the end of the year.

Frontier staff writer Clifton Adcock contributed to this report.

State appeals judge's order in "Innocent Man" case