Karl Fontenot: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

karl fontenot

Karl Fontenot and Tommy Ward were charged and convicted of the murder of 24-year-old Donna Denice Haraway, who disappeared in spring of 1984. Haraway’s disappearance and subsequent death came as a shock in Ada, Oklahoma, just two years after the rape and murder of Debbie Carter.

In the decades since Ward and Fontenot were handed a death sentence and a life sentence (Ward’s sentence was eventually commuted to a life sentence, too), there has been extensive criticism of the “confessions” that Ward and Fontenot gave to police during an interrogation. Ward and Fontenot are still in prison serving out life sentences without chance of parole.

The disappearance and subsequent death of Haraway, as well as the rape and murder of Carter, are the inspiration behind the Netflix docu-series The Innocent Man.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Karl Fontenot Was 20 Years Old at the Time of His Arrest; He Had Been Living on His Own Since He Was 16

Donna Denice Haraway

Free Karl Fontenot Facebook

According to Grisham, Fontenot grew up in Ada, Oklahoma, under the circumstances of “wretched poverty.” His father was an alcoholic, and Fontenot had witnessed his mother’s death in a car accident. He was living on his own at the time of his arrest, though it’s unclear what he was doing for work at the time.

When Fontenot was arrested, Ward had already “confessed” that he, Fontenot, and a third man named Odell Titsworth had kidnapped, raped, and murdered Haraway. Fontenot initially insisted that he didn’t know Haraway, but under the pressure of a similar (and equally controversial) confession, he soon confessed. Titsworth was soon dropped as a suspect, according to The Oklahoman. 

However, following his “confession,” Fontenot immediately rescinded his admission of guilt. Via Grisham, Fontenot later said, “I’ve never been in jail or had a police record in my life and no one in my face telling me I’d killed a pretty woman, that I’m going to get the death penalty so I told them the story hoping they would leave me alone. Which they did after I taped the statement. They said I had a choice to write it or tape it. I didn’t even know what the word statement or confessing meant till they told me I confessed to it. So that’s the reason I gave them an untrue statement so they would leave me alone.”

2. Tommy Ward & Kart Fontenot Were Arrested, Charged, & Subsequently Convicted of the Rape & Murder of Haraway

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Before Haraway’s body was found, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot were considered suspects, Grisham wrote. Ward was a suspect because several people mentioned his name, and he “had been arrested several times for misdemeanors-public drunkenness, petty theft- but nothing violent.”

When Ward was pulled in for questioning, he mentioned that he’d been fishing with his friend Fontenot at the time of Haraway’s disappearance. The police didn’t immediately charge them, though. For several months, the case was left open, with Ada police struggling to find any legitimate evidence to work with.

Then, in October of 1984, a young man in town told police that there had been a party on the night of Haraway’s disappearance. Over the course of several interrogations that have since become increasingly controversial, Ward “confessed” to the crime at the end of a particularly grueling, eight-hour-long session. Shortly after, Fontenot “confessed” amid another controversial interrogation, Grisham writes.

Donna Denice Haraway

Both Ward and Fontenot were arrested on counts of kidnapping, rape, and murder. Another man, Odell Titsworth, was considered a third suspect, but by November of 1984 police confirmed they would not be arresting him, per The Oklahoman. 

In September of 1985, Ward and Fontenot were tried for first-degree murder, as well as one count of kidnapping and one count of robbery.

On Oct. 26, despite the fact that Ward and Fontenot couldn’t tell the police where Haraway’s body was, and despite the fact that they had both recounted their confessions and insisted that they had never met Haraway, and despite the fact that the prosecutors had no other physical evidence connecting the two with Haraways disappearance, both men were convicted of her murder and sentenced to death. 

3. There Were Many Discrepancies Between Fontenot & Ward’s ‘Confessions’ & What Was Later Found to Be True

Karl Fontenot

Karl Fontenot, 6/24/2014

Within Fontenot’s confession, there were both discrepancies between what Ward said, and also what would later be found to be true. For example, Grisham notes that Fontenot’s confession directly contradicted Ward’s in terms of the order in which they had allegedly raped Haraway, whether she had been stabbed during her rape, and when she finally died.

Then, when Haraway’s body was eventually found after the trial, it was found that the details Ward and Fontenot had “provided” during their confession didn’t match her cause of death at all; she had died with a single bullet to the head, and Ward and Fontenot’s confessions detailed stabbing and burning of the body.

What’s more, neither individual was able to tell the police where the body was put to the rest.

4. Fontenot Was Granted a Retrial & Found Guilty of Haraway’s Murder a Second Time

Karl Fontenot, 2/26/2003

In 1988, both Fontenot and Ward were granted a retrial. Fontenot was formally convicted of Haraway’s murder a second time in June, and sentenced to death. Ward was also sentenced to death row a second time.

Both Ward and Fontenot are still on death row to this day. In an interview with The Marshall Project in 2017, Grisham said of Fontenot and Ward,

“I received Christmas cards last week from both Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, so we keep in touch. They have now been in prison for 31 years, serving hard time for a murder committed by someone else. Both are model prisoners. Tommy has been recommended for parole at least twice, but turned down by the board in Oklahoma. Both have excellent teams of lawyers who continue to work for their release.”

When asked by The Marshall Project what people could learn from Ward and Fontenot’s trial, Grisham said, “If you’re accused of murder, don’t confess. Tommy Ward broke down after a long night of abusive interrogation. When he cracked, he decided to give the police the sensational story they wanted, knowing full well that a complete investigation would clear him. It doesn’t work that way. He’s been in prison for 31 years.”

5.  The Oklahoma Innocence Project Still Represents Fontenot; Fontenot Was Its First Client

Karl Fontenot, 3/29/2015

In 2015, the Oklahoma Innocence Project took Fontenot on as its first client, but his appeal was denied by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.

Though the Innocence Project maintained that it would continue to work on behalf of Fontenot, his case isn’t listed as active on the OIP site. 

Currently, Fontenot is 53 and serving life without parole at the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite. As for Ward, he is not represented by the Oklahoma Innocence Project, and is serving a life sentence without parole at the Dick Conner Correctional Center.

READ NEXT: Tommy Ward: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

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