Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot were convicted of murdering Denice Haraway. Haraway, 24, worked part-time at McAnally’s convenience store in Ada, Pontotoc County, Oklahoma,, USA. She was last seen leaving the store on April 28, 1984, with a man who had his arm around her waist. The two appeared to be a pair of lovers. The store was found deserted with the cash register drawer opened and emptied. Haraway’s purse and driver's license were found inside, and her car nearby.
Months later, with Haraway still missing, police questioned Tommy Ward, who resembled the man who had accompanied Haraway from the store. After days of interrogation, Ward confessed to the crime. On the day that he "confessed" he had been interrogated for over 8 hours and was exhausted. He also implicated his friend, Karl Fontenot, and Odell Titsworth, a man he never met. During the videotaped confession, Ward frequently forgot Titsworth’s name and called him “Titsdale.” Ward said the three gang-raped Haraway, murdered her with Titsworth’s knife, and dumped and burned her body near Sandy Creek.
Fontenot was soon arrested and confessed after only two hours of interrogation. His confession was similar to Ward’s but contradicted it on many details, such as the order in which the three raped Haraway, and the location and number of her stab wounds. Fontenot said the three brought Haraway into an abandoned house, where Titsworth poured gasoline over her body and burned down the house. Ward had mentioned a burned down house in an earlier unrecorded confession, and police knew it existed.
Titsworth was arrested, but he had broken his arm two days before the murder in a fight with police. Medical and police records made him an unlikely suspect, and he was never charged with murder. While police were sifting through the remains of the burned down house, the owner appeared. After police told him of Fontenot’s confession, the owner said Fontenot’s story was impossible, as he himself had burned down the house 10 months before the murder.
At trial, the prosecutor presented the confessions and was forced into the position of telling the jury the defendants were lying about details while asking the jury to believe them anyway. Two jail-house informants supplemented the confessions. One said Ward confessed, while the other said he overheard Fontenot talking to himself, saying, “I knew we’d get caught. I knew we’d get caught.” The jurors returned with guilty verdicts and death penalties.
Haraway’s body was found January 20, 1986 in Gerty, Hughes County, Oklahoma, far from any place that was searched. She had not been stabbed or burned, but died from a single gunshot to the head.
The case attracted the attention of New York journalist Robert Mayer, who published a book about the case entitled The Dreams of Ada. Novelist John Grisham cited Mayers' book in his first non-fiction effort, best-seller The Innocent Man. Grisham pointed out disturbing commonalities between the Haraway case and another case central to his book, which addressed the investigation, prosecution, conviction, and long-delayed exoneration of two men (Ronald 'Ron' Keith Williamson and Dennis Fritz) wrongly convicted of the December, 1982 rape-murder of Ada resident Debra Sue Carter.
In 2007, former Pontotoc County District Attorney, William N. ("Bill") Peterson and former investigator Gary Rogers unsuccessfully sued Grisham and others for libel. Grisham's co-defendants included Mayers, Fritz (who co-authored the book Journey Toward Justice with Grisham), several publishers, and attorney Barry Scheck (co-director of The Innocence Project, one of the lawyers who helped exonerate Fritz, and a co-author of Actual Innocence, which discusses the Williamson and Fritz case). Peterson maintains a website he calls "Grisham's Folly," that purports to tell "The Truth Behind "The Innocent Man" [sic] & Ada, Oklahoma" and posts the various letters exchanged between Grisham and him and editorial articles from "the Ada Evening News and the Daily Oklahoman [that] highlight problems with Grisham's book."
In dismissing the libel case, U.S. District Judge Ronald White stated that the books written by Grisham, Mayers, and books were substantially true.
While other similar cases, such as those of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, have been dismissed by DNA evidence, the absence of biological evidence against Ward and Fontenot precludes the use of DNA to exonerate them. The only evidence against them is contradictory confessions extracted by police, which have been demonstrated to be unreliable, and claims made by alleged jail-house snitches.
Ward and Fontenot are currently still in prison. Ward is serving a life sentence and Fontenot is serving a life sentence without parole.