Oklahoma Court Reinstates Murder Conviction After Co-Defendant Goes Free

Two men arrested in the rape and murder of a Pontotoc County store clerk in 1984 provided law enforcement officers with confessions that included details regarding their commission of the crime. Both men described the clothing worn by the woman, the method used to kill her, and the location where they disposed of her body. They were convicted of the charges in 1985 and spent more than 30 years in Oklahoma prisons.

The problem, according to a federal court decision that released one of the men (Karl Fontenot) in 2019, was that the details of the confessions did not match any of the evidence discovered by police during the investigation. A federal appeals court upheld the reversal of Fontenot’s conviction, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to grant an appeal by the state of Oklahoma.

Now, you might think that a decision by a federal court overturning the conviction of one of the men would eventually lead to the release of his co-defendant. Well, the Oklahoma criminal courts appear to be missing, or outright disregarding, what multiple federal judges saw.

The co-defendant, Tommy Ward, had his conviction overturned by a state court because police and prosecutors withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from his defense attorney, but the conviction and life sentence was reinstated in August on procedural grounds by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. If you are wondering how a state court could keep a man in prison after a federal court found that newly discovered evidence created doubt about the validity of the confessions and the fairness of the 1985 trials, you’re not alone.

For a better understanding, we have to look at the doctrine of dual sovereignty and the relationship under the U.S. Constitution between the state and federal court systems.

How did Tommy Ward’s appeal reach the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals?

As you can imagine, several appeals have been filed challenging Ward and Fontenot’s convictions. Ward’s case came before the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals through a post-conviction challenge based on evidence showing prosecutors and law enforcement had withheld vital evidence from the defense. A Pontotoc County district judge ordered that Ward be released from prison, but the state appealed the order.

The Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the order and reinstated the conviction and sentence on what it called a “procedural” issue. The court ruled that issues raised in the request for post-conviction relief were similar to what had been raised in other appeals filed by Ward. Ward’s attorney said the defense was considering challenging the conviction in federal court, which would be similar to what was done by lawyers representing Fontenot.

Why is Ward’s case still in state court?

You may wonder why lawyers representing Ward didn’t head to federal court right after Fontenot had his conviction reversed. The answer deals with dual sovereignty. But don’t worry; the doctrine isn’t quite as complicated as it may seem at first blush.

The U.S. Constitution serves as the blueprint for creating the federal government and its share of governing powers with the states. The states gave up some of their authority to the newly created national government, which is why Oklahoma cannot print its own form of currency. Still, they retained other rights of authority, such as the power to enact and enforce laws criminalizing certain types of conduct occurring within their individual state lines.

Our dual court system is one result of this division of power between the federal government and the states. If someone violates Oklahoma law, such as the crime Ward and Fontenot were accused of committing, the state court system here in Oklahoma has jurisdiction. Federal courts generally cannot intervene in what is historically considered a state matter.

However, a federal court may become involved after a person exhausts their appeals and other remedies under state law, so long as the case involves a violation of federal law or a right guaranteed under the Constitution. Now that lawyers for Ward have exhausted their appeals understate law, the complained of violation by police and prosecutors still affect their client’s due process rights under the Constitution.

A vigorous defense eventually pays off

Thirty-seven years have passed since Ward and Fontenot were wrongfully convicted of a crime that judges in the federal court system have determined at least one of them, Fontenot, did not commit. In time, Ward may also get his day in federal court and achieve the same result, all thanks to a defense that refused to cave in the face of arguable quilt.

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