The Oklahoma Innocence Project is working to free a man imprisoned for the 1984 kidnapping and murder of convenience store clerk in Ada.
Oklahoma Innocence Project at Oklahoma City University School of Law filed an application and brief Wednesday in support of post-conviction relief on behalf of Karl Fontenot, 48. Fontenot was one of two men convicted of the murder, robbery and kidnapping of Donna Denice Haraway who disappeared April 28, 1984, from McAnally’s convenience store in Ada.
It is the first case the project has sought to overturn since it was created in 2011.
Project head Tiffany Murphy says she believes an innocent man is imprisoned.
In a press conference Tuesday at the School of Law, she outlined OIP’s reasons for filing for the relief.
“Nothing had been established in the state’s case,” she said. “The police had information they did not disclose, and it was never presented by his defense counsel.”
She said OIP wants to know why Fontenot’s alibi, which conceivably could have convinced jurors of his innocence, was never brought up, not even by his defense attorney.
Murphy also brought into question the state’s theory that Haraway had been raped, stabbed, beaten and set on fire.
“When the remains were actually uncovered, the Oklahoma County medical examiner’s office said she died from a single-gunshot wound to the head. Her bones had not been burned. There was no indication of a beating; nothing that established the state’s case.”
Murphy said Tuesday that Fontenot should be freed as soon as “humanly possible.”
Pontotoc County District Attorney Chris Ross, one of the original prosecutors in the case, said he remains convinced Fontenot and a co-defendant (Tommy Ward) were responsible for the woman’s killing.
Fontenot and Ward were tried in September 1985 and found guilty. Both men are serving life sentences.
The disappearance of Haraway continues to be the subject of books, television and newspaper stories. A 24-year-old East Central University student and convenience store clerk, Haraway was reportedly abducted by two men who police believe also robbed the store of $167.
Police found Haraway’s purse and keys inside the store and her vehicle parked outside. Witnesses told police they arrived at the store just as two men and a woman, later identified as Haraway, walked out and got into an early 1970s model gray primered Chevrolet pickup.
One of the witnesses said the three walked close together and one of the men had his hand on Haraway’s back. The other witness entered the store and discovered it unattended and the cash register draw open, accordng to an account of the incident reported in The Ada Evening News April 30, 1984.
Haraway was still missing several months later when Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot were arrested. The two men reportedly confessed to the crime after hours of interrogation. In September 1985, a jury found Ward and Fontenot guilty of murdering Haraway and recommended death penalties. Their execution date was set for January 1986. However, Fontenot was granted a new trial and in 1988 he was retried, convicted and sentenced to death a second time. This sentence was later commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The remains of Haraway’s body were found Jan. 20, 1986, at Gerty, in rural Hughes County.
Bill Peterson, who was the district attorney who prosecuted the case, said in a telephone interview with The Ada News Thursday:
“We had statements from them saying they had cut her right in the stomach. That statement is on videotape. You can’t find stab wounds in a skeleton and bones don’t burn. You can’t find bruises on bones, either.”
“They’re just doing their job,” he said of the Innocence Project. “That’s the way it is, but we litigated this thing and found them both guilty — twice. But (Murphy) has the right to apply for post-conviction relief for now.”
He said Fontenot pleaded nolo contendre — no contest — after his second trial was moved to Holdenville in a change-of-venue ruling. “That’s the same as a guilty plea in legal terms,” he said.
He said that Fontenot “identified the blouse Haraway was wearing, and other witnesses confirmed it. How could he do that, if he was at a party,” Peterson said.
(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)