A federal judge in Oklahoma has taken the police and prosecutors in Ada to task for their handling of a 1984 kidnapping and homicide. The judge wrote a 190-page opinion addressing what he referred to as “numerous constitutional violations.” These violations included a coerced confession prosecutors used at trial in spite of glaring inconsistencies between its contents and the physical evidence, including the condition of the body. The decision by the judge to order the release or retrial of a man who has spent most of his adult life behind bars while proclaiming his innocence offers more evidence of serious flaws in the criminal justice system.
Karl Fontenot was a lifelong resident of Ada, Oklahoma, when a 24-year-old woman disappeared in 1984. He was 20 years old when police took him into custody and began questioning him about the woman’s disappearance. He told police he did not know the woman, but confessed after being told a confession taken from another suspect implicated him.
Both men recanted their confessions, which were inconsistent in regards to key facts about the crime. The prosecution charged both men in connection with the murder even though a body had not been recovered. The two were convicted and sentenced to death..
An appellate court overturned the convictions, but a second trial also resulted in a murder conviction. The discovery of the body of the victim before the second trial only highlighted doubts about the confessions. For example, both men claimed they stabbed the woman, and Fontenot told police they buried the body near a power plant in Ada. When police finally found the body, it was in a field more than 30 miles away from Ada. Instead of stab wounds, officials discovered the woman had died from a gunshot.
In overturning the conviction, the federal court noted that the discrepancy between the confessions and the actual cause of death was not the only glaring error in the case. The court also noted the following:
· Defense attorneys were denied access to essential facts and information
· Crucial evidence inconsistent with the guilt of the suspects was ignored by the police
· Police botched the crime scene and allowed potentially important evidence to be destroyed
· Investigators did not protect the site where the body of the victim was found, so evidence may have been destroyed or compromised
The court went on to note that fault in handling the investigation went beyond incompetence or negligence in handling evidence and crime scenes.
Police and prosecutors went too far for a conviction
The 190-page decision overturning the conviction went beyond pointing out errors and faulty procedures on the part of police and prosecutors. It accuses the police of pressuring witnesses to change their stories and of ignoring evidence that was inconsistent with the guilt of the accused.
Police investigators were not the only ones at fault according to the federal judge. The decision found the prosecutor at fault for allowing an informant to testify that she had not made a cooperation deal which would allow her jailed boyfriend to go free.
Among the instances of misconduct by officials in charge of the case was the withholding of crucial evidence from the defense. When the body of the victim was eventually found, a forensic anthropologist was brought in by investigators to examine the remains. The contents of that report cast doubt on the guilt of the accused, but it was never disclosed to the defense by the police or the prosecutor.
The power of a confession
Justice White of the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the power of a confession to sway jurors in a criminal case when he wrote: “It is probably the most probative and damaging evidence that can be admitted against him, and, if it is a full confession, a jury may be tempted to rely on it alone in reaching its decision.” It is no wonder, given the coercive nature of the police interrogation of both Fontenot and the other suspect, that the federal court overturned the conviction, but this case is not an anomaly.
A study funded in part by the U.S. Department of Justice examined federal criminal convictions and determined that wrongful convictions occurred in 12.6% of cases based upon post-conviction exoneration through DNA evidence.
But, why would someone confesses to a crime he did not commit? Research into false confessions shows that individuals who are young or suffering from mental disabilities are most likely to wrongfully confess. Some of the reasons for this include fear and confusion on the part of the suspect resulting from interrogation tactics employed by investigators. Feelings of despair, isolation and helplessness also contribute to false confessions. Moreover, the susceptibility of younger suspects and suspects with mental deficiencies to tricks and deception on the part of law enforcement likely plays a role as well.
Fontenot was both young and, as noted by the federal court, suffering from mental impairment when he was subjected to intensive interrogation by the police in Ada. It was up to the investigators to recognize the obvious discrepancies between the confession and what was clearly shown by the physical evidence. For whatever reason, they chose to ignore those discrepancies in furtherance of a conviction.
Work needs to be done
It took more than three decades for an unjust conviction to be overturned, but it should be remembered that Mr. Fontenot and his co-defendant were sentenced to the death penalty until their sentences were changed to life imprisonment. Had their original sentence been carried out, both men would have died long before their cries of innocence reached a federal court.
Changes must be made to avoid the type of police and prosecutorial misconduct noted by the court in its opinion. One step taken by some prosecutors has been the formation of conviction integrity units empowered to review convictions obtained by their offices. The units reinvestigate cases to verify the integrity of certain convictions.
Oklahoma took a step in the right direction this year with legislation aimed at establishing procedures for eliciting eyewitness evidence. The legislation includes a provision for targeting false confessions by requiring the recording of interrogations of individuals in rape and homicide cases. This development is a positive one, but it is far from sufficient in and of itself.