OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A man imprisoned for the 1984 kidnapping and slaying of a convenience store clerk in Ada was the victim of shoddy police work and poor representation and should be freed “as soon as humanly possible,” the head of the Oklahoma Innocence Project said after a legal challenge in the case was filed Wednesday.
Tiffany Murphy, director of the project at Oklahoma City University’s School of Law, said her team filed an application for post-conviction relief for Karl Fontenot in Pontotoc County. Fontenot, now 48, is serving a sentence of life without parole at Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing.
“The brief will be seeking his exoneration. We believe he is innocent,” Murphy said.
The case is the first in which the Oklahoma Innocence Project, formed in 2011, has filed legal action. Murphy said the group of mostly second- and third-year law students spent the last two years researching cases.
Fontenot was one of two men initially sentenced to die for the killing of Donna Haraway, an Ada convenience store clerk who disappeared on April 28, 1984. After the original sentences for Fontenot and co-defendant Thomas Ward were vacated, both were convicted a second time. Fontenot received a death sentence that was later reduced to life in prison without parole, and Ward was sentenced to life.
Haraway’s skeletal remains weren’t discovered until 1986, after the first conviction but before the second round of trials.
Both Murphy and Pontotoc County District Attorney Chris Ross, one of the original prosecutors in the case, acknowledge there was little physical evidence and that the convictions hinged largely on each man’s confession about their involvement in the killing and an eyewitness account of the clerk’s disappearance.
But Murphy claims the only eyewitness later recanted his testimony and identified someone else, and that police fed Fontenot details of the crime before he confessed.
Among Murphy’s other claims is that more than 800 pages of investigation records were never turned over to the defense during the trials, including exculpatory evidence — evidence that could possibly prove lack of guilt or criminal intent — that would have aided the defense.
But Ross said he saw no exculpatory evidence in the records and remains convinced Fontenot and Ward are responsible for the woman’s killing.
“I have not seen anything in these 860 pages that change my belief as to what happened,” Ross said. “I believe that they were involved in kidnapping her and murdering her.”
Ross said appellate attorneys have had those additional pages for more than 20 years and never used them as part of Fontenot’s appeals. He said several potential witnesses have died during that time, along with the lead detective from the Ada Police Department.
“I was under the impression that the Innocence Project had just discovered these documents and the defense never had them, but in fact they were given to his defense attorney while his direct appeal was going on in 1992,” the prosecutor said. “So, that’s over 20 years ago.”
Ross also downplayed Murphy’s claim that Fontenot insists he was at a party the night of the killing, noting that evidence about an alibi was never presented at trial.
“Fontenot never put on alibi witnesses,” Ross said. “The Innocence Project is saying 30 years later that they found alibi witnesses who said he was at this party. Fontenot knew where he was. Why didn’t he tell his attorney?”