Oklahoma prosecutors are deciding whether to again file charges in a nearly 40-year-old case against a man accused of helping kill an Ada woman after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected the state’s appeal.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied the state’s request to take up the case after lower federal courts’ ordered Oklahoma to vacate the murder conviction of Karl Fontenot, one of the men profiled the John Grisham book The Innocent Man.
The high court issued no comment about why it chose to not hear the case.
The killing of Donna Denise Haraway gained national attention in 2006 after 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 that went into further details about the case.
Fontenot has been free on bond during the appeals process.
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Oklahoma will have 120 days after receiving a mandate from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to decide whether to begin the process of re-trying the case, said Rachel Roberts, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office.
“Our office is disappointed that the petition for writ of certiorari was denied by the United States Supreme Court,” Roberts said. “We will now wait for a mandate from the Tenth Circuit.”
Fontenot’s attorney, Tiffany Murphy, said after all of the court decisions favoring Fontenot, very little is left of the state’s case, but that might not be enough to keep prosecutors from filing new charges against Fontenot in Haraway’s death.
“That doesn’t stop the DA from potentially charging if they want to,” Murphy said. “I just don’t know what they would do. I imagine I will be hearing from them or I’ll have to reach out to them probably sometime next week.”
Murphy said she had not spoken to Fontenot Monday morning.
Ultimately, it will be up to Pontotoc County District Attorney Paul Smith whether the state will bring the case to trial again.
Smith said he would meet with agents from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation in the next few weeks, any judges assigned to the case and the Attorney General’s Office to determine the next steps.
“The decision by the lower courts are not without widespread criticism and widespread debate,” Smith said. “And certainly the state’s position is that they were incorrectly decided, with all due respect to the judges.”
Smith said prosecutors often face a difficult task when they take old cases that rely heavily on witnesses to trial, since memories tend to fade or change over time, though it is not an impossible task.
“There’s a lot of challenges to resurrect a case like that,” Smith said. “But I think we’re up for the challenge. We’ll see. We’ll see where it all shakes out.”
In 2020, Fontenot’s co-defendant in the case, Tommy Ward, also had his conviction overturned in state court, but prosecutors have appealed that decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Fontenot and Ward were convicted of murdering Haraway after kidnapping her from the Ada convenience store where she worked in 1984. The duo were originally sentenced to death in 1985, though Haraway’s skeletal remains were not discovered in rural Hughes County until the following year.
Shortly after Haraway’s disappearance, an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent interviewed Ward, who said he, Fontenot, and another man robbed the store Haraway worked at, then stabbed and raped her before burning her body, though investigators did not find any physical evidence linking the two to the murder.
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 by investigators into saying they killed Haraway. Fontenot’s attorneys have argued many of the inaccurate details of his confession were supplied by detectives from the Ada Police Department and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations.
When Haraway’s remains were discovered in 1986, the forensic evidence at the scene did not match up with Ward and Fontenot’s confessions. Haraway had been shot rather than stabbed, was 20 miles away from where the men said her body was dumped, and was wearing different clothes than those Ward and Fontenot described.
In early 2019, Ward’s attorneys uncovered a trove of previously-unreleased case documents at the Ada Police Department. Several of the documents have been used in court to raise questions about potential misconduct by investigators, the confessions, the fairness of the two men’s trials and their guilt in Haraway’s murder.
After attorneys presented the newly discovered records, a federal judge in Muskogee ruled that Fontenot had legitimate claims of innocence and that investigators knew a confession he made but later recanted was of dubious validity, and struck down Fontenot’s conviction. Shortly afterward, a state judge issued a similar ruling in Ward’s case. But unlike Fontenot, Ward remains in prison pending a decision on the case by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
In Oklahoma’s last filing with the U.S. Supreme Court on May 11, the state maintained that Fontenot is guilty but claimed the question of his innocence was irrelevant. The state focused on the issue of whether the high court should issue clearer direction to the lower courts on how to determine what new evidence there is of Fontenot’s actual innocence.
Clifton can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze