'The Innocent Man' enters next chapter in federal court

In this file photo from The Ada News, attorneys from "The Innocence Project" hold up a copy of the then-Ada Evening News featuring a lead story about the exoneration of two of the suspects discussed in streaming service Netflix's six-part docu-series, "The Innocent Man." The series examines the 1982 murder of Debbie Sue Carter and the 1984 disappearance and murder of Donna Denice Haraway. The crimes and subsequent investigations became the subject of novelist John Grisham’s only nonfiction work, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.” The series is based on Grisham’s best-selling book.

Lawyers who represent a man trying to win his freedom after being convicted of the 1984 murder of an Ada woman appear to have won a partial victory on Tuesday in their quest for sanctions against those responsible for withholding potentially exculpatory evidence.

They likely fell short of having Karl Fontenot — convicted for the first time in 1985, retried and convicted again in 1988 — released on bond pending the outcome of his most recent effort to win a new trial. The magistrate judge who presided over the hearing said he would recommend that the city of Ada be ordered to preserve all evidence in its possession, including documents and reports related to Fontenot’s case.

Robert Ridenour and Tiffany Murphy, who represent Fontenot in his effort to overturn his conviction and get a new trial, learned in January about police reports made public for the first time nearly 35 years after Donna Denice Haraway’s disappearance and murder. The “newly discovered” evidence turned up in December, when Thomas Ward, also convicted of killing Haraway, subpoenaed documents Fontenot’s lawyers requested in 2017.

Ada officials — from the police chief, a 38-year veteran of the force, to the city attorney and assistant city manager — were unable to explain the whereabouts of the three boxes of evidence before December 2018. Ada Police Chief Mike Miller said he was unable to remember anything about a subpoena he received in 2017 from Fontenot’s appeals lawyers.

Three boxes of evidence, which included hundreds of pages of investigative reports produced by Ada police during the late 1980s were cataloged for the first time in 2018. Miller and other city officials said those boxes might have been stored in an old jail cell — photos of the cell show Haraway’s name painted on the wall where they might have been stored — or in “the Mistletoe Room” of the general maintenance facility.

City officials said the evidence was moved in 2016 into an evidence room at the city’s new police department, where all evidence retained by the police department was logged and entered into a database. That process, according to testimony at Tuesday’s hearing, took most of two years to complete.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven P. Shreder will provide his findings and conclusions to U.S. District Judge James H. Payne, who will issue a final order for sanctions based upon Shreder’s findings. Shreder said he had “no problem” ordering the preservation of documents, something any party to legal action would be expected to do.

Like the litigants, Shreder said he found it “fairly clear, for whatever reason,” there was “no good explanation” provided for the whereabouts of the evidence during the 35 years before its “discovery” in December. However, he declined to sanction the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office or the assistant attorneys general representing the state in Fontenot and Ward’s post-conviction relief efforts.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew D. Haire failed to take steps to notify Fontenot’s lawyers about the existence of the police reports and other documents for nearly a month after he learned about its existence and then instructed Ada City Attorney Frank Stout to supplement his response to Fontenot’s 2017 subpoena. Haire’s instructions, according to testimony, were given after Fontenot’s lawyers learned about the documents from other sources and then contacted the state.

Assistant Attorney General Kevin L. McClure, responding on behalf of Haire, said Haire acted appropriately concerning the timeliness of his notice to Fontenot’s lawyers. He said Haire took steps to make notification “as soon as he discovered” the existence of those documents.

The documents, in addition to police reports, included “confidential letters written by Mr. Fontenot” to his trial lawyer that convey “his fears and concerns about the upcoming trial.” The letters also provide the names of individuals who could corroborate Fontenot’s alibi, a recantation of his confession and details of “police attempts to make him confess.”

The police reports included conflicting descriptions of unknown men who were in an Ada convenience store the night Haraway went missing, which might have excluded Fontenot as a suspect but were never disclosed to his defense team. Ridenour said assertions by the police chief and others who say the whereabouts of that evidence was unknown raises questions about the investigators and their investigation of his client.

Ridenour remained skeptical about an accounting of those boxes of evidence. He said where those boxes came from remains a mystery, and it raises questions about the veracity of the Ada Police Department’s investigation.

“You’ve got a process that has to be followed, but when you get to Ada there apparently is no process,” Ridenour said. “We can’t give them the benefit of the doubt anymore.”

Ada officials acknowledged Tuesday the city has been under the specter of a cloud of suspicion cast most recently by a six-part Netflix docu-series detailing the 1982 murder of Debbie Sue Carter and the 1984 disappearance and murder of Donna Denice Haraway — crimes which shocked Ada to its core.

The crimes and subsequent investigations became the subject of novelist John Grisham’s only nonfiction work, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.” The series is based on Grisham’s best-selling book.

“The outcome (of the hearing) was basically what we thought it was going to be,” Ada City Attorney Frank Stout said. “What happened was what we basically expected to happen. We’ve already preserved the (evidence) we’re now under an order to preserve.”

City officials acknowledged they have some work to do to shed the image of Ada as its portrayed in the docu-series.

“It’s going to take some time to overcome that,” Stout said. “All we can do going forward is just try to do the best job we can in following the law and constitution and do what we’re supposed to do.”

Assistant City Manager Angie Dean said the city has been cooperating with attorneys in both cases.

“The city of Ada and Ada PD — we’re going to cooperate,” Dean said. “We want these defendants to have a fair trial and we’re going to continue to cooperate with the Attorney General’s office and with Fontenot and Ward’s counsel. That’s what we’ve done.”

Dean declined to comment on any pending personnel matters within the police department, but said city officials will meet and discuss their next steps going forward based on the outcome of Tuesday’s hearing.

Contact Carl Lewis at (580) 310-7520, or by email at clewis@theadanews.com

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