The Norman Transcript

July 25, 2013

Project seeks to free wrongly convicted inmates

By Shaun Hittle
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Eleven Oklahoma inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence over the past two decades, including four released from death row.

That number could soon increase as the FBI looks at more than 2,000 cases nationwide involving potentially flawed forensic science evidence.

Last week, the FBI, in conjunction with the nonprofit Innocence Project and the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, announced plans to review cases involving microscopic hair analysis performed between 1985 and 2000.

“With that many (cases being reviewed), there’s a good chance” some Oklahoma cases are being examined, said Paul Cates, spokesman for the Innocence Project, a New York-based group whose mission is to exonerate wrongfully convicted people.

The FBI has yet to release more specific information about the cases or give a state-by-state breakdown of them.

Authorities used to rely heavily at times on microscopic hair evidence in criminal cases but stopped doing so because of advances in DNA testing. In some wrongful conviction cases, scientists overstated the probability that hair evidence came from specific defendants.

Several of the 11 Oklahoma DNA exonerations involved faulty hair evidence, including the case of Oklahoma City man Thomas Webb, convicted in Cleveland County in 1982 of rape and burglary.

At Webb’s trial, a forensic scientist testified that hair left at the scene most likely belonged to Webb. However, DNA testing in 1996 excluded Webb, leading to his exoneration.

Webb, 53, said he wasn’t surprised there could be more cases like his, and he’s hopeful the FBI investigation will help other wrongfully convicted inmates.

“I’m just thankful that … people that are innocent, the light is going to be released,” Webb said. “I hope the innocent find justice.”

The FBI will contact state and local authorities when questionable cases are identified. The Innocence Project, along with the pro bono attorneys from several firms, will then work with defendants who may have claims of innocence and whose cases may need further DNA testing, which could confirm convictions or exonerate and correct wrongful convictions.

Representatives from the project said they believe Fontenot, who is serving a life sentence along with co-defendant Tommy Ward, is innocent and had a strong alibi for his whereabouts during the murder of Donna Denice Haraway, who disappeared from a convenience store in Ada in April 1984. Fontenot was first implicated by Ward and later confessed.

Tiffany Murphy, director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, said Fontenot contacted them last year and asked for assistance. After an investigation, Murphy said they decided to take his case “because he’s actually innocent.”

In addition to the alibi, Murphy said the confession was coerced, and an eyewitness who placed Fontenot near the scene of the crime has since recanted.

The brief filed Wednesday in Pontotoc County seeks post-conviction relief in the case, and Murphy said the goal is Fontenot’s release and exoneration. The Pontotoc County District Attorney’s Office has 30 days to respond to the filing, Murphy said.