Judges order Oklahoma inmate, once sentenced to die, released from prison after 34 years

Two appellate judges ordered Monday that Oklahoma inmate Karl Allen Fontenot, originally sentenced to die after he was convicted of a 1984 murder, be released on bond next month as significant evidence has emerged that cast doubt on his and a codefendant’s guilt.

Tenth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judges Jerome B. Holmes and Gregory A. Phillips ordered the state to release Fontenot while prosecutors appeal an August order from U.S. District Judge James H. Payne that overturned Fontenot’s conviction and ordered him released or retried by December 19. Fontenot has been locked up for 34 years.

He and Thomas Jesse Ward were sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of Donna Haraway, after they confessed during interrogation by Oklahoma law enforcement that they had “dreams” about the murder. Their case is one of the Injustice Watch’s Unrequited Innocence series, focusing on people sentenced to death who have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.

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Unrequited Innocence

Karl Fontenot

Oklahoma Department of Corrections

Karl Fontenot

Before Haraway’s body was found, Ward and Fontenot were interrogated by police and gave specific details as to how the murder occurred, attributing their knowledge to their dreams. When her body was discovered, none of the details matched.

The two were originally tried together, convicted, and sent to death row. But they won new trials, after the appellate court ruled that they had been deprived a fair trial when the “dream” confessions of their codefendant were used against them in a joint trial. They were then retried separately and both again were convicted; Ward was sentenced to life in prison. Fontenot was again sentenced to death. Later, Fontenot was resentenced to life without parole after the appellate court ruled that the jury had been improperly instructed..

Then, on August 21, District Judge James H. Payne, issued a 190-page opinion that overturned Fontenot’s conviction, and ordered he be released or retried by December 19.

“None of the physical evidence, including Mrs. Haraway’s body, linked Mr. Fontenot to Mrs. Haraway’s disappearance or death,” Payne wrote.

Prosecutors appealed the judge’s order, and also sought to delay Fontenot’s release. The court order on Monday rejects the request to

Thomas Jesse Ward

keep Fontenot in prison while the state appeals Payne’s order overturning the verdict.

Fontenot agreed to stay in Oklahoma while the appeal is considered, according to the two-page order.

In his own appeal, Ward has been granted additional discovery of evidence, while he challenges his own conviction. He remains in prison.