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Appeals Court Upholds Reversal Of 'Innocent Man' Conviction

Oklahoma Department of Corrections
Karl Fontenot

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A federal appeals court has upheld a federal judge’s reversal of the murder conviction of an Oklahoma man whose case was featured in the book and television series ‘The Innocent Man.’

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled 2-1 that Karl Fontenot, 56, has shown actual innocence in the 1984 kidnapping and death of Donna Denice Haraway in Ada, about 70 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, based on newly discovered evidence that the court said was withheld by prosecutors at the time.

“We’re very happy, Karl is ecstatic, and we’re just waiting to see what happens next,” Fontenot’s attorney, Tiffany Murphy told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The state has 120 days from the date of Tuesday’s ruling to decide whether to retry Fontenot, according to the ruling.

“We’re reviewing the opinion and to determine what our next steps will be,” said Alex Gerszweski, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office.

The state could ask for a rehearing before the entire court, appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, allow the case to be retried or allow Fontenot, who was released from prison in 2019 following the federal judge’s ruling, to be permanently freed.

Fontenot and co-defendant Tommy Ward’s initial convictions and death sentences for Harway’s death were overturned, but both were again convicted on retrial with Fontenot again receiving a death sentence and Ward being sentenced to life in prison.

Fontenot’s death sentence was later reduced to life and Ward’s conviction has also been overturned, although he remains in prison while the state appeals.

The convictions have come under intense scrutiny for years and have been the subject of numerous books, including John Grisham’s “The Innocent Man,” which he produced into a six-part documentary.

The federal appeals court opinion noted that while Fontenot confessed to the crime, the details he provided were proven untrue.

Haraway’s body was discovered west of Ada, about 30 miles from the location identified by Fontenot and she was fatally shot not stabbed, as he had said.

“Mr. Fontenot’s confession was shot through with clear falsehoods and inconsistencies, produced no independently verifiable information, and provided the police no new facts about the crime,” according to the opinion.

“What is more, Mr. Fontenot fully recanted just two days later, accusing the police of feeding him a false narrative of his own involvement—a narrative that matched the confession they had previously obtained from Mr. Ward,” said the ruling written by Justice Carolyn McHugh.

The opinion also noted that the evidence suppressed by prosecutors included a potential suspect who had made obscene phone calls to Haraway at the convenience store where she worked in the weeks before her abduction.

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