ADA, Okla. — Tommy Ward, the last remaining incarcerated defendant whose prosecution was written about in John Grisham’s only non-fiction book, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town,” has been ordered to be released from prison.
Ward, along with Karl Fontenot, was convicted in the 1984 disappearance and murder of Ada resident Donna Denice Haraway. Haraway’s disappearance and murder was one of two Ada-area homicides, the investigations and prosecutions of which became the subject of Grisham’s book and the focus of a six-part Netflix docu-series based on the book.
Ward and Fontenot have steadfastly maintained they were innocent of the charges filed against them, alleging their confessions were obtained through coercion. Ward has served the last 35 years in prison.
In a 34 page order filed Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, in Pontotoc County District Court, presiding District Judge Paula Inge vacated and set aside all convictions and sentences against Ward and dismissed all charges originally filed against him, ordering Ward’s release from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
The order was issued in response to an Amended Application for Post Conviction Relief filed March 2, 2020, by Ward’s attorneys, seeking his release from prison or a new trial.
The Amended Application for Post Conviction Relief was filed less than 90 days after Ward’s codefendant, Karl Fontenot was released from prison. A federal judge, ruling on similar claims, ordered the state to give Fontenot a new trial or set him free. In his 190-page ruling, U.S. District Judge James Payne detailed repeated mistakes and omissions made by prosecutors in Fontenot’s prosecution — mistakes which ultimately led to his release after serving more than 30 years in prison. These same mistakes, the amended application filed March 2 indicates, were also made in Ward’s case.
“Due to the passage of time, the Court is of the opinion Ward will not be able to receive a fair trial,” Inge wrote in the order filed Friday.
The state of Oklahoma will likely appeal the decision. Therefore, it remains to be seen just how and when Ward might be released from Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy, where he is currently incarcerated.
Contact Carl Lewis at (580) 529-8601, or by email at email@example.com.