Attorneys for one of the defendants featured on the recent Netflix series "The Innocent Man" say the trove of documents recently found at the Ada Police Department indicate that there are possibly other records related to the case that have yet to be uncovered.
And Ward’s defense team is also asking for the public’s help to track down further information in the case.
Mark Barrett and Greg Swygert, the attorneys representing Tommy Ward, spoke with The Frontier this week about the status of Ward’s case to have his 1989 murder conviction and life sentence overturned, the more than 300 pages of newly discovered evidence related to the case, and why they believe Ward is innocent.
Ward is fighting in state court to have his conviction and sentence of life in prison for the 1984 kidnapping, robbery and murder of 24-year-old convenience store worker Donna Denice Haraway overturned. Karl Fontenot, who was also convicted of Haraway’s murder along with Ward, is currently seeking to have his conviction vacated in a separate case in federal court.
On the night of April 28, 1984, Haraway disappeared from her workplace at McAnally’s convenience store in Ada. A customer said he saw two men in the store acting suspiciously shortly before her disappearance, and later witnesses said they saw a man and woman leave the store, get into a grey or light-blue primered pickup and leave. Haraway was nowhere to be found, and the cash register was open and devoid of cash, and a lit cigarette was still burning in an ashtray, witnesses said.
Investigators with the Ada Police Department and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation developed Ward and Fontenot as suspects. 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. Later, both men would say those confessions had been coerced and interrogators had supplied them with details to include in their confessions.
In his confession, Ward told police that Haraway had been wearing a button-up blouse with a print of little blue roses, and that she had died after being kidnapped from multiple stab wounds.
In 1985, Ward and Fontenot were convicted of Haraway’s murder and sentenced to death, but a few months later, in January 1986, Haraway’s remains were discovered 26 miles away from Ada in Hughes County. Forensic evidence showed that Haraway died from a single gunshot wound to the head, and part of a red and white shirt was found near her remains.
“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 his post-conviction relief brief. “The importance of Mr. Ward’s supposed knowledge of Ms. Haraway’s blouse cannot be overstated. The State argued at closing that the description of the blouse was ‘tied to this Defendant like an anchor to a boat.’ But once the body and the other shirt were discovered, there was no anchor.”
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals later overturned Ward’s and Fontenot’s convictions, but both were later retried and convicted again in 1989.
Since then, both men have fought to have their convictions again overturned. Author John Grisham’s 2006 book "The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town," covered the case against Ward and Fontenot, and the Netflix series based on the book released late last year looked in depth at the case.
In January, shortly after the release of the Netflix series, more than 300 pages of previously unreleased documents related to the case were discovered at the Ada Police Department after Ward’s attorneys, Barret and Swygert, subpoenaed the police department in for records related to the case.
Barrett, a criminal defense attorney from Norman, also represented Ron Williamson, who, along with co-defendant Dennis Fritz, was convicted by a Pontotoc County jury for the 1982 rape and murder of 21-year-old waitress Debbie Carter. Williamson was sentenced to death, but was able to get a new trial, where he was represented by Barrett. During the second trial, Barrett gained access to DNA evidence that showed neither Williamson nor Fritz committed the crime, though the DNA profile obtained matched the state’s main witness against the accused men. Williamson and Fritz’s case were at the center of Grisham’s book and the Netflix series.
Swygert is a law professor and attorney at the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law in Chicago, where he has helped exoneratenumerous people wrongfully accused of crimes.
Earlier this year, all Pontotoc County judges recused themselves from hearing Ward’s case, which was assigned to a judge from Atoka County. It was the limited discovery allowed by the judge that led to the uncovering of the 300-plus pages of documents, Swygert and Barrett said.
Barring any delays, the discovery period in the case ends on June 14, and after that Swygert and Barrett said they plan to ask the court permission to file an amended petition in the case.
That amended petition, if the court allows it, will likely contain information gleaned from those newly uncovered documents, the attorneys said, though neither attorney would go into detail about what they have discovered so far.
“I, personally, was blown away by the content,” Barrett said. “Some of the pages – most of them — have not been made public. It was not just the number of the pages, but the content of some of them. The content includes information the police had identifying other suspects, including some who matched the sketch, some who unlike Tommy had prior felony convictions, some who unlike Tommy had prior connection to the deceased.”
Swygert said there are hints in those records — as well as in records provided by the OSBI a couple of years ago — that there were other records produced in the case that attorneys have yet to see.
“Based on the documents we had received before, we knew there were documents that were not provided to us,” Swygert said. “Even going through these (new) documents, there are still documents we know existed and possibly still exist somewhere, but we have not been given them. And we know this because other documents talk about it. There were certain people interviewed, and there is no way these interviews were not documented somewhere, or very, very unlikely. But we still don’t have those.”
The information contained in the newly acquired records breathed new life into the decades-old case, Swygert said.
“The information we received, some of it was so new to the defense team, that we have to investigate it, and we’re currently investigating it,” Swygert said. “We’ve been investigating this for a long time, but ever since we got those documents, the investigation has gone into high gear.”
Earlier this month, prosecutors for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office revealed that a new witness had come with incriminating evidence against Ward and Fontenot in Haraway’s murder.
Ferlin Wayne Traylor, who worked out at the Chickasaw Nation Wellness Center in Ada with former Pontotoc County District Attorney Chris Ross, told investigators that in December 2018 he noticed Ross was looking disturbed while working out and that Ross told him about the Netflix documentary, which “did not paint a good picture of him or the investigation,” court filings state.
Traylor said he told Ross that prosecutors had the right people convicted, and later told an investigator for the Attorney General’s Office that two or three days before Haraway went missing, he went into McAnally’s to buy a soda, when he saw the clerk — Haraway — seemed to be frightened. When he approached the counter, she asked him not to leave and started to cry. A dark-haired man who was in the store and a second man who was sitting in a pickup truck outside had been harassing her, Traylor told investigators, and after asking Haraway why she didn’t want him to leave, she told him she thought the two men were going to try and take her.
The man in the store then left and got into the pickup with the other man, and Traylor said he walked outside and got a long look at the men’s faces, who left after a few minutes. Traylor said he and his wife stayed with Haraway for about 15 minutes while she closed the store, and that she called the police about the incident, though an officer did not show up.
Later, when Ward and Fontenot’s pictures were published in the newspaper, he knew they were the two men he had seen at the store that night, the investigator’s report states.
The report was filed by the Attorney General’s Office in Fontenot’s case, but not Ward’s. Fontenot’s attorneys, in a filing earlier this month stated that Traylor is not an uninterested party because he is friends with Ross.
“Despite Mr. Traylor not calling the police or Mr. Ross to report this account, it is interesting that the genesis of this account is due to Mr. Ross’ negative reaction to a television show,” Fontenot’s attorney’s filing states.
Though Traylor’s account has not yet been introduced in Ward’s case, both Barrett and Swygert anticipate it will be.
“We have not been provided at this point with any documents that show that happened, that the police were contacted in this case, and we have not been provided any documents that show the family was made aware of this at all either,” Swygert said.
Barrett said the incident may have happened, but it is not possible to rule out misidentification even if it did.
“The issue of possible misidentification is at the forefront of our case,” Barrett said. “There are other strong suspects who were so strong there were people who called in and said that was the person and matched the same sketch that Tommy matched. If Mr. Traylor did see somebody, we’re not convinced it was Tommy.”
Barrett said one of the biggest revelations thus far in the case was that some investigators knew that the blouse that Ward described Haraway as wearing in his confession was missing from Haraway’s closet prior to Ward describing it in his confession. Barrett said that detail — which was used as evidence that Ward knew what Haraway was wearing the night she disappeared — was supplied to Ward by investigators to include in his confession.
“The blouse description which they claimed was only known to the real killer was in fact known to everybody, including law enforcement,” Barrett said. “That’s very significant, because everything else about Tommy’s statement that was material was demonstrably false. The prosecution hung their hat on him allegedly describing the blouse she was wearing. Tommy said they told him the blouse looked like this, but they said they couldn’t have told him because they didn’t know. Now, we’ve got strong information that they knew, or at least certain persons in law enforcement did know the description of the blouse. The idea that his statement was corroborated in any material way has fallen apart.”
During Ward’s third interrogation, on Oct. 18, 1984, he first told officers that he had a dream about Haraway’s disappearance and murder. Many of the details of that “dream confession” were later incorporated into Ward’s admission during the interrogation, Swygert said.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 297 wrongful convictions overturned since 1989 that involved a false confessions. Five of those were in Oklahoma. In the Ron Williamson case, a “dream confession” was also used, though Barrett said it was not an actual confession, true or false.
“It’s notable that to some people, the Williamson-Fritz case was a confession case,” Barrett said. “From my point of view, Ron never confessed. He said he had a dream where he was an investigator and went up to the apartment where the lady was killed and looked around and inaccurately described the crime scene and how she was killed. But to even the court of criminal appeals, that was considered a confession and that was one of the reasons they found that even though there was an error in the case it was not prejudicial because it wouldn’t have made any difference. In one way of looking at it, the other notable Ada case was a false confession case.”
The details that turned out to be wrong in both Fontenot’s and Ward’s confessions could mean that details in the confessions were supplied by investigators, Barrett said.
“From our point of view, that actually demonstrates the falsity in this case, because if two people are going to confess and have the same wrong information, how did that same wrong information get there if someone hadn’t suggested it to them?” Barrett said. “The fact that there were two (confessions) in this case, makes you wonder more about what was said to them to make the confessions come about, because they’re both wrong and, in some cases, wrong in the same material ways.”
Barrett said Ward remains hopeful that he will eventually be set free.
“He is more upbeat than I think most people would be in this situation,” Barrett said. “He talks about his religious beliefs and how they’ve carried him. He’s a more optimistic and positive person than most people would be in this situation, but he’s still very frustrated with being there. He’s talked about it being painful when he sees other people get out who are innocent, while he keeps staying in even though he’s innocent.”
However, Swygert said, time has taken its toll on Ward, and his family.
“He longs to be with family, especially he wants to see his mom who is too elderly and frail to visit him because he’s too far away,” Swygert said. “He’s missed out on seeing people. He’s getting up there in age and so are a lot his family members, and some of them have passed away in recent years. There’s a longing there to get out and be with his family and see them before anyone else happens to pass away or move away.”
Both Barrett and Swygert said they are seeking more leads from the public. Though the Netflix series on Ward’s case prompted a large amount of tips, they have since slowed to a trickle.
“There are definitely some leads we’re still following we would like to get more information about,” Barrett said. “We’re not sure all the public knows we’re still needing more information. They may think that after all this time, we’ve learned everything that can be learned — that’s probably not true. We learned some things from Ada Police this year.”