The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ordered on Thursday that Tommy Ward, whose 1989 murder conviction was overturned last month, must remain in prison while the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office appeals the case.
Ward, who was twice convicted for the 1984 abduction and murder of Ada convenience store worker Donna “Denise” Haraway, had his conviction overturned late December by District Judge Paula Inge, who was assigned to hear the Pontotoc County case.
A second defendant in Haraway’s murder, Karl Fontenot, had his conviction and sentence overturned and was ordered released by a federal judge in Muskogee late last year. That decision was appealed that decision to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is still considering arguments made earlier this year in the case.
Ward and Fontenot’s case was the subject Fontenot and Ward were subjects of a 2006 John Grisham book — and a wildly popular 2018 Netflix documentary — titled “The Innocent Man,” as well as a 1987 book by Robert Mayer titled “Dreams of Ada.” The books and movie looked at two circa-1980s murders in Ada, that of Debbie Carter and the wrongful convictions of two men in that case, as well as Haraway’s case.
Inge’s ruling Ward’s case, and the previous federal court ruling in Fontenot’s case setting him free, came after a trove of around 300 pages of documents related to the case were discovered in late 2018 in the Ada Police Department’s evidence room in response to a request by Ward’s attorneys. Fontenot’s attorneys had also previously requested documents matching their description but were told none existed. The documents included police interviews of witnesses, alternative suspects and other leads that should have been made available to Ward’s attorneys in the 1980s, the court ruled.
In her order, Judge Inge cited the newly discovered evidence and said it showed investigators knowingly withheld crucial witness and evidentiary information from Ward’s trial attorneys, and that Ward’s constitutional rights were violated.
“The investigators seem to have taken on the roles of prosecutor, judge and jury, determining that only ‘relevant’ evidence was evidence which fit their theory of the case,” Inge wrote. “It also seems highly probable the district attorney’s office knew favorable evidence was being suppressed and turned a blind eye…”
At the request of the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, Inge issued a temporary stay expiring Friday to delay Ward’s release, and on Thursday the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals’ granted the AG’s office’s request that Ward remain in prison pending the outcome of the state’s appeal, which is likely to take a least several months to resolve.
Greg Swygert, one of Ward’s attorneys who shortly after Inge’s ruling had said he hoped to have Ward free by Christmas, said he hadn’t spoken to Ward as of Thursday afternoon, but had talked to Ward’s family about the ruling.
“I’m assuming it’s going to be a big disappointment to Tommy, and certainly it’s a disappointment for us, his legal team, and his supporters as well,” Swygert said.
Swygert said hoped Attorney General Mike Hunter would drop the appeal and leave the decision of whether to retry the case up to Pontotoc County District Attorney’s Office.
“It will be at least several months I think before a ruling will happen. The only way that Tommy could come out earlier is if the Attorney General reconsiders his appeal, acknowledge his rights were violated and drop the appeal to allow the District Attorney of Pontotoc County to decide whether a trial should occur,” Swygert said. “I’m holding out hope he’ll consider this option and take it.”
Hunter’s office declined comment Thursday.
Meanwhile, since the Attorney General’s Office filed its appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Ward’s legal team has grown to include former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma Patrick Ryan (who successfully prosecuted Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols) former U.S. Attorney Daniel G Webber Jr., and attorney Matthew C. Kane, all of the Oklahoma City law firm Ryan Whaley Coldiron Jantzen Peters & Webber PLLC.
“We are persuaded Tommy Ward has not received justice and are pleased to join the legal team on his behalf,” Ryan said in a statement to The Frontier.
The state must submit it’s brief to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals by Feb. 16.
The Frontier is a nonprofit corporation operated by The Frontier Media Group Inc.