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Oklahoma Innocence Project works to free man serving life sentence


By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter

Oklahoma ranks in the top 10 states in the nation for the number of known wrongful convictions of innocent people.

The Oklahoma Innocence Project (OIP) at Oklahoma City University School of Law, believing they have found another tragic wrongful conviction, recently filed a request for post-conviction relief on behalf of inmate, Karl Fontenot.

Fontenot is serving a life sentence after he was convicted of the murder, robbery and kidnapping of Donna Denice Haraway, who disappeared from McAnally’s convenience store in Ada, Oklahoma in April 1984.

Launched in 2011, OIP began working on the Fortenot case in 2012. It is the first case the project has sought to overturn.

OIP Director Tiffany Murphy said, “It is our belief that the evidence we discovered during the course of our investigation into this case proves Karl Fontenot was not involved.”

National attention was given to the Fontenot case in 2006 when it was mentioned in John Grisham’s book “The Innocent Man.” His book is about Ron Williamson, who was exonerated after spending eleven years in prison for a wrongful conviction that also took place in Ada, Oklahoma.

“Karl’s conviction relied on one eyewitness placing him at McAnally’s that evening, along with Karl’s confession,” said Murphy. “That eyewitness has recanted his identification of Karl, and Karl’s confession was largely disproved by the police investigation at the time.”

This lone eyewitness later identified another individual. Fontenot’s false confession was deemed false by a subsequent medical examiner’s report, along with corroborating evidence.

“The state’s theory, both in the joint trial and in Karl’s own trial in 1988 was that Mrs. Haraway had been raped, stabbed, beaten and set on fire,” said Murphy.

“When her remains were uncovered, they found the Oklahoma County Medical Examiner stated the fact that she died of a single gunshot wound to the head.”

Murphy contends that more than 800 pages of records from the case were not turned over to the defense during Karl’s trials.

Pontotoc County District Attorney, Chris Ross, one of the original prosecutors in the case, said, “The elected DAs in Oklahoma meet with the elected DAs in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana and we discuss how do you react to wrongful conviction claims. The best practice and the practice that I follow is if somebody wants to look at something fine. I don’t have a problem with that.”

“If you look at the 800 plus documents, and I’ve been through them all, I didn’t see anything that I believe would change a jury’s verdict.”

OIP pursues only cases where they feel there is credible evidence of factual innocence.

“The evidence that we have is the fact that Karl had an alibi,” said Murphy. “He was at a party at the time that Mrs. Haraway disappeared.

“When he was polygraphed and asked ‘where were you’ he explained ‘I was at a party with these people. He told his trial attorney, ‘I was at a party.’ None of that was presented during his case.

“We firmly believe an innocent man has been in prison for nearly 30 years for a crime he did not commit.”
OIP claims there still are documents that have not been turned over to Fontenot’s counsel.

Murphy continued, “Based on the evidence that clinical students, volunteers and the Oklahoma Innocence Project staff have uncovered, we have found that law enforcement ignored investigative leads in the case, ignored alternate theories and suspects and ignored Karl’s alibi.

“It is our hope that this process can not only exonerate Fontenot, but also help to identify the true perpetrator of this terrible crime.”

Fontenot and his co-defendant were tried together in September 1985. Both men were found guilty, sentenced to death and scheduled to die in January 1986.

Fontenot’s case was appealed and he was granted a new trial. During the appeal, Haraway’s remains were found approximately 30 miles east of Ada.

“What’s not important is my opinion,” said Ross. “The question is – would this have changed the verdict of the jury?”

In 1988, Fontenot was retried, convicted and sentenced to death a second time. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Ross asserts that two separate juries, 24 people in two different counties (Pontotoc and Hughes) listened to this evidence and found Fontenot guilty.

Murphy said, “Our system is such that it is adversarial. I don’t want to say that it’s not, but it is based on a premise of fairness and justice.

“Because both sides collapsed, the jury did not have a full understanding of this case. This is not their fault. It’s the fact that the system has failed them, as well as failing Mrs. Haraway and Karl Fontenot.”

The state now has less than 30 days to respond to the group’s filing.

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