Karl Fontenot was convicted twice and sentenced to death after each trial in the 1984 killing of a Pontotoc County, Oklahoma, store clerk. He spent more than 30 years in prison before a federal court released him on bond in 2019. The court cited new evidence that established his probable innocence.
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the state’s challenge of the decision by writing that it could find almost no evidence linking Fontenot to the crime other than a confession given to police that contained numerous factual errors about the commission of the crime that should have been obvious to the police. Fontenot is now back in the news after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by Oklahoma challenging the circuit court ruling.
The district attorney of Pontotoc County may not be ready to concede defeat, though. The district attorney was reported in the press as saying that a decision on whether to refile charges in the case was pending. District Attorney Paul Smith is quoted as saying the decisions from the federal courts were “incorrectly decided.”
What prompted the action by the federal courts?
Fontenot and a co-defendant, Tommy Ward, were convicted after a trial in 1985. The court imposed the death penalty on each individual. Both men were granted a second trial in 1986, but the results were the same.
Ward was questioned about the disappearance of the female store clerk by an agent from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation shortly after she disappeared. Ward confessed to robbing the store with Fontenot. He also described how he and Fontenot raped the woman before stabbing her to death and setting fire to her body.
Although Fontenot gave essentially the same confession the following day, soon after, both he and Ward recanted and claimed police coerced them into making their statements.
Attorneys for the two men challenged the convictions in federal court in 2019 by presenting evidence of misconduct that included police and investigators for the state withholding evidence from the defense. The court found the newly discovered evidence raised serious constitutional issues casting doubt on the validity of the confessions and the fairness of the trials.
But they confessed to the crimes!
One of the factors casting doubt on the validity of the confessions was how the details of the commission of the crime (as related by the two suspects) failed to match the forensic evidence police had obtained. For instance, police found the victim’s body in 1986, but its location was 20miles away from the area both men gave for where they left it after killing the woman.
Other discrepancies between the confession and the evidence discovered by police were even more glaring. The men said they stabbed the woman, yet an examination of the body showed that she had been shot rather than stabbed. Likewise, the clothing found with the body did not match the clothing the men described in their confessions.
Here’s the compelling thing about confessions that most laypersons aren’t aware of: Scientific proof now exists to support the long-held belief that an innocent person can be coerced or duped into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. The Innocence Project uses science, primarily in the form of DNA evidence, to overturn the convictions of people wrongly convicted of committing crimes, and the statistics that result from their work are staggering.
According to data compiled by the Innocence Project, 29% of the people whose convictions the Innocence Projectsuccessfully fought to overturn gave confessions to the police. If false confessions disturb you, then you’re likely equally troubled by the fact that69% of the exonerations obtained by the Innocence Project were convictions based on the testimony of one or more eyewitnesses. Moreover, 84% were based on identification testimony from a victim.
What happens now?
Unless the district attorney attempts to proceed with a case based on evidence federal judges have now questioned, Fontenot and Ward appear headed toward exoneration because of the Supreme Court declining to grant an appeal by the state. The biggest takeaway from these convictions and the data about wrongful convictions, though? Always remember the importance of a vigorous and determined criminal defense attorney and how they can significantly assist in preserving the presumption of innocence regardless of the “evidence” against the accused.