Who Killed Newlywed Convenience Store Clerk Donna Denice Haraway?
The case was covered in the John Grisham book and documentary adaptation ‘The Innocent Man.’
A John Grisham book and documentary adaptation, The Innocent Man, detail the murder of an Oklahoma convenience store clerk slain almost four decades ago — but is whoever committed the crime behind bars or walking free?
In 1989, Thomas Ward and his co-defendant, Karl Fontenot, were found guilty of killing Donna Denice Haraway in Ada 15 years earlier. They were both given death sentences.
On April 28, 1984, Haraway, a newlywed and college student at East Central University, was working the night shift at the store, McAnally’s, when she went missing. Her disappearance caused panic in the small town, where just two years earlier, a woman named Debbie Carter was raped and murdered in her home, The Oklahoman reported.
At the time, police said a customer found the convenience store empty and $167 was missing from the cash register. Two men seen in the area were wanted for questioning.
In the years following Haraway’s disappearance, Ward and Fontenot were identified as suspects and arrested and charged with her death despite the fact that no body had been located.
According to Grisham’s book, Ward had a non-violent criminal history but people had mentioned his name in connection with the murder. Fontenot was drawn into the case when Ward told detectives he was with him the evening Haraway vanished.
The two men later gave what are now controversial confessions to Haraway’s murder after hours of questioning, reportedly basing, in part, their account of what happened to the victim on dreams. They both later recanted their statements to police.
Ward and Fontenot were convicted and sentenced to death in October 1985.
According to the Associated Press, the victim’s body was found in woods three months after Ward and Fontenot were sent to prison. Based on the discovery, details of the men’s confessions contradicted what investigators learned. The men said the victim was fatally stabbed and burned, but the skull showed signs Haraway was shot. They gave the incorrect location of where her body was dumped.
A state appeals court overturned Ward and Fontenot’s convictions and granted a retrial in 1988. The pair, however, were again convicted, reportedly largely because of their previous confessions. Both were sentenced to serve life in prison.
Over 30 years later, in December 2020, a Pontotoc County district judge dismissed the charges against Ward and vacated his conviction, ruling prosecutors withheld possibly exculpatory evidence, such as witness interviews and police reports, the Associated Press reported.
“The Pontotoc County District Attorney’s office relied solely on investigators to provide it with the evidence needed to prosecute the case without questioning whether the investigators had turned over all exculpatory and/or impeachment evidence,” Judge Paula Inge wrote in her order. “The investigators seem to have taken on the role of prosecutor, judge and jury, determining that the only ‘relevant’ evidence was evidence that fit their theory of the case.”
The judge then noted Ward could no longer receive a fair trial because so much time had passed since Haraway was murdered.
Haraway’s family questioned why the conviction was tossed.
“It has sickened us to see what has been done over the past few years to distort, mislead and outright lie about the facts of the case,” they said at the time in a statement obtained by The Oklahoman.
“Because the facts of the case and the proof against Ward and Fontenot haven’t changed. The only thing that has changed is the release of the so-called true book by John Grisham, followed by the Netflix series,” the statement continues, in part. “Both are filled with distortion and are completely one-sided when it comes to the case against Ward and Fontenot.”
They added: “We could write an entire book refuting the falsehoods and distortions contained in the book, series and briefs filed by the attorneys.”
Ward remained in custody pending an appeal by the state. A year and a half later, in August 2022, Oklahoma’s Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling, and Ward’s conviction was reinstated.
“He’s very disappointed that he’s still in prison for a murder he didn't commit,” Mark Barrett told the Associated Press after the decision, vowing he and his client, now 62, were “pressing forward” and exploring their legal options.
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