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Special prosecutor to decide whether to move forward in ‘Innocent Man’ case

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Oklahoma Department of Corrections
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Karl Fontenot

A special prosecutor will decide whether to move forward with charges against one of the defendants in The Innocent Man case after Pontotoc County District Attorney Paul Smith recused himself.

A federal judge in 2019 overturned the conviction of Karl Fontenot in the 1984 kidnapping and murder of Ada convenience store clerk Donna “Denise” Haraway. The judge’s ruling came after a trove of case documents was discovered in an Ada Police Department evidence room that should have been turned over to defense attorneys.

The Oklahoma District Attorney’s Council has hired Sandi Elliott, a longtime assistant district attorney in Oklahoma County to serve as a special prosecutor. Elliott served as the lead prosecutor in Oklahoma City bombing accomplice Terry Nichols’s trial and last year argued against clemency for death row prisoner Julius Jones. Elliott will work out of District Attorney Kyle Cabelka’s office, who oversees prosecutions in Cotton and Comanche counties.

Elliott is taking over Fontenot case after state’s last appeal failed in June when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the matter. 

On Aug. 16, Smith, who is not seeking re-election this year, wrote to the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office’s Criminal Appeals team asking to recuse himself from the case, stating that there was at the least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Conservatively, the state has until October 4 — 120 days from the June 6 denial by the U.S. Supreme Court — to begin the process of bringing new charges against Fontenot, Smith said.

Smith’s letter states his and his office’s close relationships with some of the investigators, former district attorneys and other potential witnesses in the case. Smith could also be called as a character witness for some of those individuals in a civil rights lawsuit that Fontenot filed in 2021 against Ada detectives, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agents and others involved in the case.

In addition, one of the victim’s family members is now a district judge in Seminole County, which is in Smith’s prosecutorial district, Smith said.

“There was just too much where people could say ‘Oh, you’re just doing whatever you’re doing because of these relationships or these friends or associates or family members, rather than having someone from outside taking a clean look at it who has not been in the district for the last four decades,” Smith said.

Last month, Fontenot’s co-defendant in the Haraway case, Tommy Ward, faced a setback when the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals reversed a lower state court ruling that had overturned Ward’s conviction in 2020. Ward’s attorneys have said they plan to file a petition similar to Fontenot’s in federal court.

Haraway’s murder gained national attention in 2006 after author John Grisham published The Innocent Man, a nonfiction book that touched on the case in addition to a number of other dubious murder convictions in Ada in the 1980s. Public interest in the case was reignited after a 2018 Netflix documentary went into further details about the case.

Fontenot and Ward were convicted of murdering Haraway after she was kidnapped from the Ada convenience store where she worked in 1984. The duo were originally sentenced to death in 1985, though Haraway’s skeletal remains were not discovered in rural Hughes County until the following year.

Shortly after Haraway’s disappearance, an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent interviewed Ward, who said he, Fontenot and another man robbed the convenience store and stabbed and raped Haraway before burning her body. But investigators did not find any physical evidence linking the two men to the crime.

Fontenot was arrested the next day. Both he and Ward confessed to the killing but quickly recanted and have claimed for years that they were coerced by investigators into saying they killed Haraway. Fontenot’s attorneys have argued many of the inaccurate details of his confession were supplied by detectives from the Ada Police Department and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations.

When Haraway’s remains were discovered in 1986, the forensic evidence at the scene did not match up with Ward and Fontenot’s confessions. Haraway had been shot rather than stabbed, was 20 miles away from where the men said her body was dumped, and was wearing different clothes than those Ward and Fontenot described.

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The Frontier is a nonprofit newsroom that produces fearless journalism with impact in Oklahoma. Read more at www.readfrontier.org.

The Frontier is a nonprofit newsroom that produces fearless journalism with impact in Oklahoma. Read more at www.readfrontier.org.