An Oklahoma man convicted of first-degree murder almost 30 years ago is innocent and should be freed, the head of the Oklahoma Innocence Project said Wednesday.
Karl A. Fontenot, 48, is serving a life sentence without parole for the 1984 killing of Donna Haraway.
Wednesday, the Oklahoma Innocence Project at the Oklahoma City University School of Law filed an application and brief in Pontotoc County in support of post-conviction relief on behalf of Fontenot.
Tiffany Murphy, the project's director, said the organization believes that the evidence its students and staff members discovered during its investigation into Fontenot's case proves he was not involved. Murphy said Fontenot should regain his freedom “as soon as humanly possible.”
“There were many inconsistencies throughout the investigation into Ms. Haraway's disappearance, many of which help our case for post-conviction relief for Karl,” Murphy said. “We firmly believe an innocent man has been in prison for nearly 30 years for a crime he did not commit.”
The state of Oklahoma has 30 days to respond to the documents the Oklahoma Innocence Project filed, Murphy said.
“We will be moving for an evidentiary hearing to present our case to the court, and after that the court will make a decision, provided everything moves according to statute,” Murphy said.
This is the first action that the Oklahoma Innocence Project has filed in an Oklahoma court. The project, which launched in August 2011, is a collaboration of Oklahoma City University law students and attorneys who pursue cases “where there is credible evidence of factual innocence,” according to the organization.
Fontenot and his co-defendant, Thomas J. Ward, were tried in court in September 1985. Both men were found guilty and sentenced to death. They were scheduled to die in January 1986. Fontenot's case was appealed, and he was granted a new trial.
During the time span of Fontenot's appeal, Haraway's remains were found about 30 miles east of Ada. 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, according to the Oklahoma Innocence Project.
Murphy said she could not comment on whether the Oklahoma Innocence Project is working on Ward's case.
During Wednesday's news conference, Murphy gave examples of conflicting evidence in Fontenot's case.
“The state's theory both in the joint trial and in Karl's own trial in 1988 rested on the fact that Ms. Haraway had been raped, stabbed, beaten and set on fire,” Murphy said. “When her remains were actually uncovered, the Oklahoma County medical examiner stated the fact that she died from a single gunshot wound to the head, her bones had not been burned, there was no indication of beating, nothing that had been established in the state's case.”
Murphy said Fontenot had an alibi during the time of Haraway's disappearance. He told police during a lie-detector test that he was at a party with specific people. Witnesses from the party told police that Fontenot was at the party, Murphy said. Fontenot also shared his alibi with his trial attorney.
“None of that was presented during his case,” she said. “The police had information they did not disclose, and it was never presented by his defense counsel as well.”
Murphy said she has not been in contact with Haraway's family. There is no evidence that Fontenot and Haraway knew each other, she said.
Haraway worked at a convenience store at the time of her disappearance. Murphy said that Haraway's family and friends told police that, before she died, Haraway was being harassed with obscene phone calls and by people who came into the store.
“She was concerned to the point where she was pursuing buying a gun,” Murphy said. “This was a woman who was afraid of someone she potentially knew, and the police were aware of this and did not disclose to anyone, nor did they pursue it themselves.”
Contributing: Joey Stipek, Staff Writer
We will be moving for an evidentiary hearing to present our case to the court, and after that the court will make a decision provided everything moves according to statute.”
Director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project at the Oklahoma City University School of Law