Muskogee-based federal judge James H. Payne ordered yesterday that Karl Fontenot, 55, who has been in prison since he was 18 shortly after a 1984 murder in Ada, be released from prison or granted a new trial within 120 days.
Author John Grisham wrote a nonfiction book about the case called “The Innocent Man,” which was later made into a documentary of the same name. Fontenot confessed to the killing of Donna Denise Haraway after hours of interrogation by Ada police. Eventually he said he had had a dream where he and a friend raped and stabbed Haraway to death, dumping her body south of Ada. Her body hadn’t been found yet, and was not found until after Fontenot was convicted and sent to prison.
She hadn’t been stabbed to death, the remains showed. She had been shot in the head. And her body had been dumped 30 miles north of Ada, not south, as Fontenot had said. Fontenot received a new trial, but the district attorney used his confession — even with the wrong details about the crime — to get a conviction again. He was given the death penalty, which was later overturned to life in prison.
Payne ruled yesterday in a 190-page opinion in US District Court in Muskogee. He eviscerated the prosecutors in the case and police for misconduct, and said evidence about Fontenot’s alibi and other suspects was “solid proof” of his “probable innocence.”
“The Ada Police Department investigators turned a blind eye to many important pieces of evidence, relying instead on witness statements that fit their theory of the case while disregarding much stronger evidence of alternate suspects,” the judge wrote.