On July 24, 2013, the Oklahoma Innocence Project filed its first application for post-conviction relief in the case of Karl Fontenot, a convicted murderer who used to be on Oklahoma’s death row.
Fontenot was charged with murder in the 1984 disappearance of Donna Haraway. He was convicted and sentenced to death before the victim’s body had been discovered. In the confession that prosecutors used against Fontenot at trial, he admitted to raping, stabbing and burning Haraway’s body. However, when her body was discovered, a medical examiner determined that she had actually died of a single bullet wound to the head.
Fontenot’s conviction was overturned shortly after his trial and by the time he went to trial for the second time, Haraway’s body had been found. He was convicted and sentenced to death again. Later, his death sentence was reduced to life without parole. Prosecutors maintain that Fontenot and his codefendant, Tommy Ward, are guilty of Haraway’s murder and insist that the medical examiner would not have been able to find evidence of stabbing or burning because the victim’s remains only consisted of bones.
However, the Oklahoma Innocence Project points to withheld information and inconsistencies in the state’s case as reason for the courts to take a fresh look at Fontenot’s conviction. This evidence includes an alibi that was allegedly not investigated by the state and whom defense counsel failed to put on the stand, as well as 800 pages of records that the state did not disclose to the defense at trial.
Pontotoc County District Attorney Chris Ross, who helped convict Fontenot, claims that his office only received 144 pages of police material associated with the case and that the documents uncovered by the Innocence Project were news to him as well. It is unclear from media reports how the Innocence Project and Fontenot’s direct appeal lawyer came to receive the documents if not through Ross. In any case, Ross argues that the records do not contain anything that would have changed the jury’s verdict.
Among the undisclosed material is evidence that demonstrates that Haraway was being harassed and stalked by someone other than Fontenot in the lead up to her disappearance. The Oklahoma Innocence Project contends that the police failed to investigate alternate suspects in the case.
One point that opposing sides agree on is that there was little physical evidence available in the case and the convictions hinged largely on the defendants’ confessions and an eyewitness account of the clerk’s disappearance.
Not only do there seem to be problems with the confessions since they suggested a cause of death that is inconsistent with the physical evidence, but the eyewitness testimony is also in question because the witness later recanted his testimony and identified an alternate perpetrator.
An evidentiary hearing will be held after the state responds to the filing.