WHEN a jury in Ada sentenced him to death for killing a convenience store clerk, Karl Fontenot showed little emotion but yelled “You liar” at the prosecutors, according to a September 1985 story in The Oklahoman.
Nearly three decades later, Fontenot may get another chance to prove his prosecutors wrong. The Oklahoma Innocence Project believes he is innocent and has filed a request in Pontotoc County for post-conviction relief. This is the first filing by the group since its formation within the Oklahoma City University law school in August 2011.
When OCU announced this worthwhile initiative, school officials stressed that it was designed not to free inmates based on legal technicalities, but instead to free those few inmates who are wrongfully convicted. The Oklahoma Innocence Project believes Fontenot, now 48, fits the bill.
It's more publicity for a case that has gotten plenty already. Fontenot and Tommy Ward were convicted in 1984 of kidnapping, robbing and killing 24-year-old Donna Haraway. A video played at trial showed the men telling of raping Haraway as she was stabbed to death and then disposing of the body.
The men, originally sentenced to death, later recanted their confessions. Haraway's partial remains were found well after the trial, more than 30 miles from where one of the men said they would be; the skeleton had a bullet wound rather than blade marks.
Subsequently, author and journalist Robert Mayer questioned their guilt in the book “The Dreams of Ada” and in a Vanity Fair magazine article. The news program “60 Minutes” paid a visit to Ada. More recently, novelist John Grisham made references to the case in a nonfiction book about two men exonerated after years on Oklahoma's death row.
Tiffany Murphy, who heads up the Oklahoma Innocence Project, says documents were withheld from the defense and that the prosecutor's theory of how the crime occurred was erroneous. She also says Fontenot had an alibi and that police didn't interview other suspects.
The man who initially prosecuted Fontenot and Ward, former Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson, always defended his handling of the case. The current DA, Chris Ross, who assisted Peterson, is doing the same. He said he believes Fontenot committed the crime, and that he doesn't believe errors were made regarding what needed to be turned over to the defense.
He also noted that in two trials (the sentence in the first trial was vacated), Fontenot never presented testimony from a witness suggesting he had an alibi. The second jury convicted even after being told about differences in the theories of death, Ross said.
To his credit, Ross also said, “If they want the court to look at it, then the court ought to look at it.” Although fully confident in the office's work, this comment reflects an understanding that if — if — Fontenot was wrongly convicted, then a remedy is needed.
The Oklahoma Innocence Project believes it can make that case. The state has 30 days to respond to the group's filing. In time we may learn whether justice really was served or whether, as the OIP's Murphy believes, “an innocent man has been in prison for nearly 30 years for a crime he did not commit.”