Lawyers representing a former death-row inmate whose conviction and life sentence for a 1984 murder of an Ada woman was overturned in August will file this week proposed conditions for his release from prison in December.
Karl Fontenot, who was convicted in 1985 for his alleged involvement in the death of Donna Denice Haraway, is scheduled to walk out of prison Dec. 19 after serving 34 years for a crime that has garnered national attention. Two federal appellate judges denied the state’s request to keep him locked up while an appeal of the lower court’s order remains pending.
U.S. District Judge James H. Payne in August overturned Fontenot’s second conviction and a sentence of life without parole. In his 190-page opinion, Payne found Fontenot had “established the actual innocence gateway,” which removed any procedural barriers to his pursuit to have his conviction and sentence vacated.
Payne found the evidence produced by the state at trial to be “unreliable, contradictory, uncorroborated or simply nonexistent.” He determined “no rational juror who was able to set aside the tragedy of Mrs. Haraway’s death could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Fontenot should be convicted solely on his unsubstantiated confession.”
Assistant Attorneys General Matthew D. Haire and Theodore M. Peeper, on behalf of Scott Crow, interim director of Oklahoma Department of Corrections, appealed Payne’s ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. They sought a stay of Payne’s order — that Fontenot be permanently released or retried within 120 days of the Aug. 21 ruling — but were denied by Payne and the two-judge appellate panel.
Circuit Judges Jerome B. Holmes and Gregory A. Phillips ordered the state to release Fontenot on bond while the state pursues its appeal of Payne’s decision to overturn the conviction. They granted the state’s request to stay Payne’s order for a new trial within the 120-day window following the Aug. 21 order overturning Fontenot’s conviction.
“Mr. Fontenot states he does not oppose a stay of his retrial if he is released on bond pending the State’s appeal,” the judges wrote in the two-page opinion issued this past week. “He also agrees to be subject to conditions of release to ensure he stays in Oklahoma while this court considers the State’s appeal.”
The appellate court judges ordered the district court to provide time before Fontenot’s Dec. 19 release to propose conditions of the release. Payne issued a briefing schedule that requires Fontenot’s lawyers, Robert Ridenour and Tiffany R. Murphy, to file proposed conditions of release by Thursday, and the state’s lawyers will file their response by Nov. 21.
Fontenot and Tommy Ward, who is appealing his conviction for the same crime, have said the “dream confessions” used against them at trial were coerced. Both men have maintained their innocence since their convictions in 1985.
Their cases were profiled during a six-part Netflix docu-series based on novelist John Grisham’s only nonfiction book, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.” The series examined the 1982 murder of Debbie Sue Carter and Haraway’s 1984 disappearance and murder.
Payne found an investigation of Fontenot’s case “revealed both documents and witness statements that prove an alibi defense, and substantiate proof of the ineptness of the police investigation.” Newly discovered evidence that turned up in 2018, Payne found, “undermines the prosecutor’s case and provides solid proof of Mr. Fontenot’s probable innocence.”
Ada officials — from the city’s now-retired police chief, a 38-year veteran of the force, to the city attorney and assistant city manager — were unable to explain during a hearing earlier this year the whereabouts of the three boxes of evidence before they were cataloged in December 2018. The evidence, those witnesses said, was found after the Ada Police Department moved to a new facility.