Ward and Fontenot: “Dream confessions” led to death sentences

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This story is the third in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.

More than six months after Donna Haraway, 24, vanished in 1984 from a convenience store in Ada, Oklahoma, two men whom police had questioned as suspects were charged with robbing, abducting, raping and killing her.

The body of Haraway, a married college student who worked at the store, had not been found. But Thomas Jesse Ward and Karl Allen Fontenot were arrested and charged based on videotaped statements in which they claimed they had dreams about the murder.

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Unrequited Innocence

Their accounts conflicted in some material ways: Fontenot, for example, said in his dream that he saw Ward rape Haraway; Ward, however, said that in his dream he was unable to rape her. But both described having dreams that Haraway died of multiple stab wounds. Her body was either burned and left in a concrete bunker near the edge of town, or left in a nearby abandoned house that was set on fire. Both said a third man, Odell Titsworth, was the ringleader.

Police quickly eliminated Titsworth as a suspect; he had suffered a broken arm in a scuffle with police two days before Haraway disappeared, leaving him physically incapable of the acts Ward and Fontenot attributed to him in their dreams. That did not discourage prosecutors, who went forward with the case just against Ward and Fontenot, who went on trial together.

Karl Fontenot and Thomas Jesse Ward

Oklahoma Department of Corrections

Karl Fontenot and Thomas Jesse Ward

There was no physical evidence, not even a body. But the state presented the taped confessions of Ward and Fontenot. In addition, two witnesses said they saw a man they identified as Ward playing pool at a store not far from the convenience store at which Haraway worked. A third witness testified that not long after he saw a man who appeared to be Ward leave, along with Haraway, the convenience store where she worked. None of the witnesses could identify Fontenot, and one told authorities that Fontenot was not the man with Ward.

The only other evidence linking them to the crime was a jailhouse informant, Terri Holland, who claimed Fontenot both confessed to her and implicated Ward while they were at the Pontotoc County Jail.

Despite the lack of evidence to support the dream confessions, the jury found Ward and Fontenot guilty and both were sentenced to death a month later.

The Oklahoma Court of Appeals reversed both Fontenot’s and Ward’s convictions, based on purely legal grounds: It violated the defendants’ constitutional right to cross-examine witnesses, the court ruled, to have the confessions of one co-defendant used against the other co-defendant. The case was sent back so they could be retried separately.

Doubts continued to mount about the prosecution case.

Even before the new trials were ordered Haraway’s body was found in a field 27 miles away. The autopsy determined Haraway died not from stabbing but from a single bullet wound to the head and that her body had not been burned — contradicting key facts about how Haraway was killed and what was done to her afterward.

The defense contended that the defendants had been coerced into confessing during the interrogation, in which Ada Police Detective Dennis Smith and Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation Agent Gary Rogers took part.

The two officers had obtained a similar dream confession from former minor league baseball star Ronald Williamson, who was convicted and sentenced to death in a separate case in 1988. Holland testified in Williamson’s trial as well, contending that Williamson confessed to him while they were locked up together.

Williamson’s conviction was overturned and he was exonerated in 1999.

Ward and Fontenot have not been so lucky. On retrial, the two were again convicted at separate trials. This time, the convictions were upheld, though the appellate court sent Fontenot’s case back for re-sentencing, ruling the judge had erred in the jury instruction.

The prosecutor then agreed to a life-term for Fontenot.

The Oklahoma Innocence Project, on Fontenot’s behalf, and volunteers, on Ward’s behalf, have gone back into court, contending the prosecution improperly withheld from them evidence that police knew that Fontenot was elsewhere the night of the murders, and that prosecutors knew of alternate suspects whom they failed to disclose to Ward before his conviction.

In August, U.S. District Judge James H. Payne ordered that Fontenot be released or receive a new trial within 120 days given the absence of evidence indicating his involvement.

“Not one detail of Mr. Fontenot’s confession could ever be corroborated with any evidence in the case,” Payne wrote.

The prosecutors have appealed the judge’s order, and also are seeking to delay Fontenot’s release while the appeal is pending.

Ward’s case also remains pending.