On Dec. 18, former Ada resident Thomas Jesse Ward, convicted of a murder he insists he did not commit, was ordered to be set free after more than 35 years in custody.
Oklahoma District Court Judge Paula Inge granted Ward’s amended application for post-conviction relief and vacated and set aside the judgements and sentences against him.
According to court records filed Friday in Pontotoc County District Court, Inge wrote, “... this court finds that the factual contentions made by the petitioner, Thomas Jesse Ward, in his amended application for post-conviction relief are sufficient as a matter of law to establish a prima facie showing the petitioner is entitled to post-conviction relief. It is therefore ordered, adjudged and decreed that petitioner’s amended application for post-conviction relief is granted. Pursuant to Title 22, O.S. 1085, this court hereby vacates and sets aside the judgements and sentences entered against Ward on July 10, 1989, dismisses the charges originally filed against him in Pontotoc County case number CRF-84-183 and re-tried in Pottawatomie County case number CRF-1988-208; and discharges Ward from the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.”
Ward, now 60, was originally convicted in 1985, along with Karl Allen Fontenot, now 56, in connection with the April 1984, disappearance and murder of 24-year-old Ada resident Donna Denice Haraway.
In 1988, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Ward’s first conviction due to the United States Supreme Court reversing its prior position on joint trials for defendants with interlocking confessions.
Fontenot’s original conviction was also reversed for the same reason.
Both were also later convicted in second trials. Ward was sentenced to death in the first trial, then life imprisonment after the second trial.
Haraway disappeared from her job at McAnally’s convenience store on the east side of Ada, April 28, 1984. Her body wasn’t found until 20 months after the disappearance.
Ward and Fontenot were arrested later that year and reportedly made confessions which they said were coerced.
According to Fontenot v. State (1987), “In October of 1984, Tommy Ward made a statement to law enforcement officers which inculpated Fontenot, an individual named Odell Titsworth, and to a slighter degree, himself. Fontenot and Titsworth were arrested as a result and Fontenot gave a statement substantially in agreement with Ward’s except that it more clearly inculpated Ward. In each (of) Ward’s and Fontenot’s statements, the instigator and ringleader in the criminal acts was said to be Titsworth. However, Titsworth was eliminated as a suspect within a few days of his arrest because of clear proof the police had that he had not been an accomplice.
“According to the statements of Ward and Fontenot, Haraway was robbed of approximately $150, abducted, and taken to the grounds behind a power plant in Ada where she was raped. According to appellant’s (Fontenot) version, she was then taken to an abandoned house behind the plant where Titsworth stabbed her to death. She was then burned along with the house. When Haraway’s remains were found in Hughes County, there was no evidence of charring or of stab wounds, and there was a single bullet wound to the skull.”
The remains were not charred, according to the court document.
Ward’s attorneys filed papers earlier this year asking that his sentence to be vacated, saying the state violated Ward’s right to due process by “(suppressing) exculpatory evidence and soliciting false testimony” to obtain Ward’s 1989 robbery, abduction and murder convictions in violation of his constitutional rights.
In Inge’s decision, she indicated that, because Haraway’s body was not discovered until 20 months after she disappeared, the “case rested on circumstantial evidence in the form of conflicting witnesses testimony and Ward’s inculpatory statements he gave to law enforcement.”
It was also mentioned that, with the exception of a blouse description given by Ward to investigators, none of his other statements about his involvement in Haraway’s abduction were found to be true.
Also, the court filings indicated there was conflicting witness testimony, that the only witness to place Ward at the scene of the abduction “was seeking a reward.”
Inge wrote that the district attorney’s office “relied solely on investigators to provide it with evidence needed to prosecute the case without questioning whether investigators had turned over all exculpatory and/or impeachment evidence.
“The investigators seem to have taken on the roles of prosecutor, judge and jury, determining only ‘relevant’ evidence was evidence which fit their theory of the case.”
“... This process of suppressing favorable evidence to Ward is fundamentally unfair and has deprived him of his right to a fair trial. He has been denied due process as guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions.”
Inge wrote that the cumulative effect of the material evidence withheld by the state creates a reasonable probability the outcome of the trial would have been different given the burden of proof for a conviction.
“No person is to be deprived of liberty or life without due process of law, which included the right to be free from conviction except under proof beyond a reasonable doubt of guilt,” Inge wrote. “Ward asked for exculpatory and/or impeachment evidence for over 30 years, both prior to trial and post-trial. Finally, in 2019, the Ada Police Department turned over 300 pages of police documents after representing to Ward’s attorneys for years the department had no documents relating to the Haraway case.
“For the first time, Ward discovered there were problems with the credibility of the state’s witnesses identifying Ward as the guilty party. It would only take one juror out of 12 to find the state had failed to prove Ward’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, keeping Ward from being convicted of murdering Haraway. Ward was arrested after his video-taped ‘confession’ on Oct. 18, 1984, and has remained in custody for over 35 years. Due to the passage of time, the court is of the opinion Ward will not be able to receive a fair trial.”
No specific date of release was mentioned.
Fontenot was released in December 2019 at the age of 55 after a federal judge ordered he be released or retried.
Both Ward and Fontenot claimed their confessions were coerced and steadfastly maintained their innocence.
In 2006, the crime and subsequent investigation became the subject of part of novelist John Grisham’s only nonfiction work, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.”
In December 2018, streaming service Netflix debuted a six-part series examining the 1982 murder of Debbie Sue Carter and the 1984 disappearance and murder of Haraway. The series is based on Grisham’s best-selling book.