Many Oklahomans are familiar with the horrific 1980’s era murders of Ada residents Denise Haraway and Debbie Carter. The shocking brutality of the crimes and the relative tranquility of the small town they occurred in created a media sensation, and immense pressure to find the killers.
Police in Ada quickly arrested four men: Ron Williamson, Dennis Fritz, Tommy Ward, and Karl Fontenot. All four were convicted after a jailhouse informant testified in both cases that she overheard the defendants confess to the killings. There was only one problem -- all four were innocent.
After serving decades in prison, all four of the defendants have since been released either through the use of DNA tests or after federal courts demanded that the defendants be retried or the charges dropped due to major flaws in the existing cases.
The 1980s-era Oklahoma cases were first highlighted by journalist Robert Mayer in the book “The Dreams of Ada” and later in the only work of nonfiction superstar author John Grisham, “The Innocent Man.” That book has since become a popular Netflix series.
“Their stories are heartbreaking,” Grisham said of the Ada defendants in a 2017 interview. “If you’re accused of murder, don’t confess. Tommy Ward broke down after a long night of abusive interrogation. When he cracked, he decided to give the police the sensational story they wanted.”
Prosecutors in the state of Oklahoma must now keep track of jailhouse informants they rely upon to provide testimony and document favorable treatment granted to informants in exchange for testimony according to a new law signed in May by Gov. Kevin Stitt.
The bill’s passage makes Oklahoma one of only a few states working to better track the use of informants in order to prevent them from lying in sworn testimony to gain favorable treatment from prosecutors. More than 140 people nationwide have been wrongfully convicted after prosecutors in their cases relied on bogus informant testimony, according to a 2019 report from the investigative news organization ProPublica.
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