On the surface Ada, Oklahoma looks like your typical small town in the heart of the Bible Belt. Ada's Chamber of Commerce invites travelers to experience the southern charm of its downtown square or visit the birthplace of country singer and "The Voice" host Blake Shelton.
Sorely missing from the tourism materials though is any reference to the 1980's calamity of a legal system that has flung the small town into the national spotlight as a poster-child for judicial failures and created a picturesque example of a broke-down, corrupt criminal justice system.
Miscarriage of Justice
Ada gained national notoriety in 2006, when John Grisham's non-fiction book The Innocent Man revealed a town responsible for condemning two innocent men to jail for eleven years.
Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were convicted in 1988, six years after the 1982 rape and murder of Ada resident Debbie Sue Carter. The two men never wavered in declaring their innocence while they were subsequently railroaded by Ada's version of "criminal justice."
Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson was responsible for bringing "justice" to Debbie. Yet, five years after the tragic incident, Peterson's investigation of Debbie's gruesome rape and murder had gone nowhere. Ada residents whispered about lost faith in any vindication. Then entered Ada resident Glen Gore touting previously undiscovered "knowledge," which Peterson quickly determined was the answer to his high-profile problem.
To secure his prosecution, Peterson pulled out a pair of pocket aces in a parade of jailhouse "informants." Terri Holland, Peterson's star snitch, testified that Williamson, while in jail for violating his house arrest for a forgery charge, confessed to her while both were incarcerated in the Pontotoc County Jail. Holland miraculously informed authorities over two years after Williamson's "confession" once she had got in legal trouble again. Holland joined another jailhouse informant who amazingly heard Williamson confess to the crime less than 24 hours before police were going to have to release Williamson for lack of evidence.
Williamson fought for his life on Oklahoma's Death Row- at one point coming within five days of execution in 1994. He and Fritz, who was sentenced to life without parole, maintained their innocence in jail for twelve years until they were exonerated in 1999 by DNA tests. Although the DNA cleared Fritz and Williamson, the test implicated another incarcerated Oklahoma prisoner: Glen Gore. Yep, that Glen Gore. The former star prosecution witness was convicted as Debbie's real murderer and is now serving life without parole, barely escaping a death sentence due to a fractured jury.
Feels like we've been here before...
Recently, Pontotoc County regained its place on the national legal-infamy stage when the Oklahoma Innocence Project called into question another faulty prosecution in Ada in the mid 1980's by filing an application for post-conviction relief for Karl Fontenot in Pontotoc County on July 24, 2013.
Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot were convicted of the Apr 28, 1984, murder of Denice Haraway, a 24-year-old Ada newlywed. The story of their conviction is eerily similar to Fritz and Williamson. Bill Peterson prosecuted them. Terri Holland (remember her?) also testified that Fontenot confessed to her as well.
Peterson urged the jury to believe Ward and Fontenot's confessions, even though they wholly contradicted one another. Denice's body had not been found before trial, which begged the question: if the police had confessions, why was Denice's body still missing? Nonetheless, Peterson succeeded in convicting Ward and Fontenot for the "no-body" murder of Denice Haraway.
After their 1985 trial, Ward and Fontenot both received death sentences. However, these sentences were overturned on appeal because each of their confessions could not be used against each other when neither of them took the stand. Denice's body was discovered months after the first trial. Forensic examinations of Denice's body proved the factual impossibility of both Ward and Fontenot's confession. Nonetheless both were retried in 1988, this time with a body, and each received a life sentence.
Same small town + Same prosecutor + Same snitch = Two more Ada wrongful convictions?
With the population of 16,000, Ada is responsible for three of Oklahoma's eighteen exonerations. This means that a town that encompasses 0.4% of Oklahoma's total population of about 3.8 million also accounts for 16% of the exonerations in Oklahoma. Compared with Oklahoma County, the state's largest county (which accounts for 19% of the state's population and 22% of the exonerations), the statistics are simply frightening. The likelihood that Fontenot and Ward have possibly spent nearly 30 years in prison as innocent victims of a corrupt system is something that must be looked in to.
Ada's third exoneree is Calvin Lee Scott, who was freed by DNA evidence in 2003 after serving 20 years for the rape of an Ada woman in August 1982. Want to guess who the prosecutor was? You got it: Bill Peterson. However, unlike his prior statements opposing the release of Williamson and Fritz and the potential release of Fontenot and Ward, Peterson said he had no problems with releasing Scott. "The system works both ways," he said. "It not only convicts people, but it frees them. It's a hard thing. We do the best we can, and juries do the best they can. It's not a perfect system, but it's the best system I know of in the world."
Peterson's 2003 statement about Scott's exoneration is reasonable and honest. However, that statement and his 1999 statements regarding Williamson and Fritz's exoneration are irreconcilable. The Innocent Man reprints parts of an Ada newspaper article published after their exoneration where Peterson was quoted, "Innocent has never crossed my lips in regards to Williamson and Fritz. This doesn't prove their innocence. It just means I can't prosecute them with the evidence I now have."
Now, Chris Ross, who worked on the Fontenot and Ward case as a young prosecutor, is making some outlandish statements of his own similar to that of his protege Peterson. "I have extreme confidence that nothing that they have presented in their brief would have changed a jury's verdict," Ross said. "I don't care what she (Murphy) thinks, and it doesn't matter what I think. Twenty-four jurors have heard this case, and all 24 have found him guilty."
Why everyone should be worried about Oklahoma.
These issues illustrate the ugly under belly of the American criminal justice system: an innocent person can (and probably has) faced execution.
This sobering truth is statistically more prone to happen in Oklahoma than any other state. Why?
Oklahoma executes more convicts on a per capita basis than any other state. No other place, not even Texas, comes close. Similarly, Oklahoma is responsible for 10 of the 142 people who have been exonerated from death row. The only states with more exonerees than Oklahoma are Florida, Texas, and Illinois, states with populations four to eight times that of Oklahoma. Translation? Oklahoma likely has the highest per capita exoneration from death row in the United States of America. In laymen's terms, Oklahoma sends more people to die and has the highest likelihood that one of those people is innocent.
However, Oklahoma seems to be taking some steps in the right direction by recently enacting a law allowing inmates post-conviction access to DNA testing to prove innocence. Although, Oklahoma was the 50th state in the country to adopt such a law, Oklahoma aims to be a pioneer in the Innocence arena by enacting one of the most comprehensive DNA access laws in the country, a likely recognition of the large possibility that Karl Fontenot is not the only innocent person in Oklahoma prisons.