Tommy Ward

Tommy Ward. Courtesy Netflix

Attorneys for one of the men convicted in the 1984 robbery, abduction and murder of Donna Denice Haraway in Ada are asking a judge to vacate his conviction and sentences after they say newly uncovered evidence shows investigators elicited a false confession and hid evidence showing details of the confession were fed to the defendant by police.

The Frontier

The Frontier is a nonprofit focusing on investigative and watchdog journalism. For more information or to donate, go to www.readfrontier.org.

In a motion and brief filed Monday on behalf of Tommy Ward, one of two men convicted of Haraway’s murder in Ada and who was featured in the John Grisham book the Innocent Man and 2018 Netflix series of the same name, Ward’s attorneys state they have found evidence that shows police extracted a false confession from Ward, and that prosecutors suppressed other exculpatory evidence.

“Newly discovered, undisputed evidence vindicates Mr. Ward’s position that the State suppressed exculpatory evidence while soliciting false testimony to obtain Mr. Ward’s 1989 robbery, abduction, and murder convictions, all in violation of his constitutional rights,” a motion for summary disposition by Ward’s attorneys state.

And a key part of that newly-uncovered evidence, the attorneys said, is a statement provided to Ward’s attorneys by Haraway’s husband.

The motion for Ward’s conviction and sentence to be vacated comes months after Karl Fontenot, who was convicted alongside Ward for the kidnapping, robbery and murder of Haraway and sentenced to life in prison, was ordered by a federal judge to be given a new trial or set free because of numerous flaws in the investigation and prosecution of the case, including violations of Fontenot’s constitutional rights and false testimony knowingly used by prosecutors.

Ward and Fontenot have spent nearly 35 years in prison.

The state, represented by Attorney General Mike Hunter’s office, has appealed the Fontenot decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case is still pending. However, Fontenot was ordered to be released from prison a few months ago pending the outcome of the appeal.

Alex Gerszewski, spokesman for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, said Hunter’s office is currently examining the filing in Ward’s case and has yet to file its response. Gerszewski said the state hopes its appeal in the Fontenot case is successful and avoids a retrial.

Many of the documents that the federal judge cited in his decision in Fontenot’s case were uncovered for the first time by Ward’s attorneys in early 2019 as they sought further evidence from investigators.

On April 28, 1984, Haraway, a 24-year-old clerk at McAnally’s convenience store in Ada, went missing. Some witnesses reported seeing two men in the store acting suspiciously before she disappeared, and later witnesses said they saw a man and woman leaving the store and getting into a pickup truck. The store’s cash register was open and missing its cash, and a lit cigarette was still burning in an ash tray, witnesses said.

Investigators with the Ada Police Department and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation developed Ward and Fontenot as suspects in Haraway’s disappearance. Though there was no physical evidence tying the men to the crime and Haraway’s body had not been found, both later gave confessions to police about kidnapping and murdering Haraway.

Months after Haraway went missing, police again questioned Ward during a 9-hour interrogation, during which Ward admitted he had a dream in which he, Fontenot and a third person kidnapped, raped and murdered Haraway by stabbing her multiple times. During his confession, which occurred during the final 30 minutes of the interrogation and was the only videotaped portion of the questioning, Ward said Haraway was wearing a button-up blouse with blue flowers printed on it, according to court records.

Later, Fontenot would give a similar “dream confession” of Haraway’s demise to investigators.

Both men later recanted their confessions and stated they were innocent of the charges against them.

In 1985, Ward and Fontenot were found guilty of Haraway’s murder and sentenced to death.

During the trial, Haraway’s husband Steve Haraway and her sister Janet Weldon, said they knew the blouse, which Weldon had bought for her sister, was missing soon after Haraway’s disappearance, but did not report that she might have been wearing the blouse to police until after Ward’s confession several months later.

However, Haraway’s body was discovered the following year — more than 20 miles from the location Ward said Haraway was killed at and was killed by a single gunshot wound rather than multiple stab wounds, according to court records.

Finally, parts of a red and white shirt, along with matching earrings, were found near Haraway’s remains. The blouse Ward said she was wearing was nowhere to be found.

“The discovery revealed that every detail of Mr. Ward’s ‘confession’ not previously known by police was either erroneous or uncorroborated,” Ward’s attorneys wrote in a brief accompanying Monday’s motion.

Ward and Fontenot’s convictions were later overturned by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, since the two were tried together, but both were again found guilty after they received new trials in 1989. They were both later sentenced to life in prison.

During Ward’s second trial, prosecutors said the red and white shirt did not belong to Haraway, and pushed back against Ward’s assertion that he was fed information by police to include in his confession, according to Ward’s brief.

The blouse, which was never found, was a crucial point in the case against Ward and Fontenot. During Ward’s re-trial, the prosecution stated that the missing blouse was the only material detail from Ward’s confession that was not disproven, uncorroborated or known by police beforehand, so that detail could not have been given to Ward to include in his confession.

Investigators, such as OSBI Agent Gary Rogers and Ada police detective Dennis Smith, also testified during Ward’s retrial that they were unaware of the missing blouse until Ward told them about it in his confession. Investigators said, after Ward’s confession, they contacted Haraway’s mother inquiring about the blouse, and her mother contacted Weldon, who then gave the description to police.

During closing arguments, the prosecutor told the jury “That blouse is tied to this Defendant like an anchor to a boat and he can’t shake it,” according to court transcripts. “It proves the police didn’t tell him because they didn’t know.”

However, in 2019, Ward’s attorneys began to uncover evidence that police may have known about the blouse prior to Ward’s confession. It was mentioned in an undated police interview with Weldon, and was included in an updated missing person report prior to Ward giving his confession.

In October, Atoka County District Judge Paula Inge allowed Ward’s attorneys to conduct some limited additional discovery in the case, including submitting some written questions to Steve Haraway.

In response, Steve Haraway said he and his sister-in-law spoke to Ada police detectives the day after Donna Haraway went missing, and at the request of the detectives went through Donna’s things to see what was missing. After doing so, they described the blouse to detectives and said it was missing, according to the court filing.

Other records and witness testimony also show that police were aware of the missing blouse prior to Ward’s confession, the filing states, and there are hints that there are other documents showing this that have yet to be turned over.

“But what is most important is that evidence previously withheld from the defense has so thoroughly undermined the State’s theory that the conviction can no longer stand,” Ward’s attorneys wrote.

The brief by Ward’s attorneys also points out similarities between Ward and Fontenot’s case and that of Ronald Keith Williamson and Dennis Fritz, who were convicted in 1988 for the 1982 murder of Debra Sue Carter. Williamson and Fritz were both later exonerated, and their story was also covered in Grisham’s 2006 book The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town and the 2018 Netflix series.

Both cases occurred around the same time period in Pontotoc County, were prosecuted by now former Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson, were based on investigations led by Ada Detective Captain Dennis Smith and OSBI Agent Gary Rogers, involved “dream confessions” that were used as the basis for conviction, relied on testimony from the same jailhouse informant who said she overheard defendants in each case confess, and undated interview reports, Ward’s attorneys wrote.

“The State’s deliberate and successful efforts to hide the truth from Mr. Ward, the court, and the jury led to Mr. Ward’s convictions,” Ward’s attorneys wrote. “These violations of Mr. Ward’s state and federal constitutional rights, along with newly discovered evidence of Mr. Ward’s innocence, require that Mr. Ward be granted relief.

“Thomas Jesse Ward has now spent 35 years in prison for crimes he did not commit,” the brief states. “Allowing Mr. Ward’s convictions and sentences to stand would perpetuate a gross and tragic miscarriage of justice that has robbed Mr. Ward of what should have been the prime years of his life. Mr. Ward asks this Court to vacate his convictions and sentence and order a new trial.”

WARD BRIEF

React to this story:

23
4
5
30
56

Recommended for you