It seems impossible to believe that anyone could confess to a murder they didn't commit, but it actually happens more often than you'd think. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 13% of all eventual prison exonerees initially made false confessions. Additionally, nearly 75 percent of those false confessions came in murder cases. Netflix's The Innocent Man tackles this side of our judicial system, and shows that Karl Fontenant and Tommy Ward claim they falsely confessed to murder as well.
After the 1984 disappearance of Ada, OK resident Denice Haraway, Ward and Fontenot were convicted of her murder and sentenced to death based mostly on the content of taped confessions with investigators and eyewitness testimony. After Haraway's body was finally discovered in 1986, they received a new trial but were ultimately convicted again.
Oklahoma inmate records show that Ward is now serving out a life sentence, and Fontenot is serving life without the possibility of parole. But both men recanted their initial confessions and now claim to be innocent, according to The Oklahoman.
The Netflix series showed that Ward was first brought in for questioning on October 12, 1984. He denied any involvement in the case. A week later he failed a polygraph and was brought in for additional questioning. When asked why he thought he failed the polygraph, Ward said, "I'm a nervous person," and added that it could have been because of a dream he'd had between the first and second interrogations.
He then gave the dream confession that would later be used at his trial. In it, he said he'd dreamed about kidnapping, raping, and stabbing Haraway with two other people. According to Oklahoma's News 9, one of these people had an alibi, but the other was Fontenot who was then brought in for questioning himself.
As shown in the series, Fontenot told a story similar to Ward's and described getting drunk and high before allegedly setting Haraway's dead body on fire. (Ward's own story differed, with him claiming that the body had been disposed of in a river.)
Both men were asked on camera at the end of the session if they'd made their statements of their own free will. Both men answered yes. But as the series showed, in the intervening years, their tune has changed. They both now claim to be innocent and victims of false confessions.
The Innocence Project, which works to free people who believe they are wrongly imprisoned, noted that there are a number of reasons why people may initially confess to something they didn't do. These include that they may feel or be threatened by investigators, have mental issues, be overtired from long interrogations, fear harsher punishment if they don't confess, etc.
Ward's lawyer in 1986 told The Oklahoman that Ward "thought the police would eventually disprove [the] stories and [he would] be released." Then, in the second episode of the Netflix series, Ward spoke from behind bars about his allegedly false confession, saying:
"They just come at me and start saying, 'You did it and you know you did it and this is how you did it,'" Ward claimed about the investigators' alleged tactics. "They weren't taking, 'No, I didn't do it' for an answer. They kept lying to me … after a while they just [had] me to lying." Ward added that he felt the investigators wanted him to use his imagination.
Court documents show that Fontenot believed his mental deficiencies played a role in his alleged false confession. In court documents, Fontenot claimed that the investigators had coerced him during a long questioning session. The fourth episode of the series also showed that a psychologist had concluded that Fontenot was allegedly not able to distinguish between right and wrong, and that he had allegedly confessed because of some sort of desire for attention.
In the court documents, the investigators agreed that they didn't start recording Fontenot until two hours in to the questioning, but they denied that they'd coerced or fed information to Fontenot during his interview.
The Innocent Man also focuses on how the men's statements differed significantly from what Haraway's remains ended up revealing about her death. Her body wasn't found until Fontenot and Ward had already been convicted of her death, and it revealed several inconsistencies with their stories, per The Oklahoman. For example, the remains were found 30 miles east of where the police had been searching based on Ward and Fontenot's stories. There was also no evidence that the body had been burned like Fontenot had claimed. She'd also been shot, whereas both Fontenot and Ward had mentioned only stabbing in their statements.
Additionally, the shirt found at the scene was red with white stripes — a large contrast to the lavender shirt with small blue flowers that both Ward and Fontenot had described in those recanted confessions. The series shows that Haraway's sister had made a statement where she mentioned that Haraway owned a lavender shirt with blue flowers. The statement was dated from before Ward or Fontenot were questioned.
Richard Leo, a false confessions expert, weighed in on these inconsistencies during the fourth episode of the Netflix series. "Innocent people don't know the details, they get details wrong," he said.
Ultimately all the appeals that Fontenot and Ward have filed on the basis of them having allegedly falsely confessed have been denied. As the state's court documents noted, during Fontenot's second trial, the jury was made aware of any inconsistencies in the confession and the actual remains. They chose to convict anyway. Prosecutor Bill Peterson was also unconcerned about inconsistencies, per The Oklahoman. "They said they dumped her body west of town, north and south, and all the time leading us away from east," he said.
There's no physical evidence connecting Fontenot and Ward to Haraway's murder. Court documents show that they were tried mostly on the basis of their own statements, eyewitness testimony placing them near Haraway's workplace, and a jailhouse informant alleging that she heard Fontenot confess. Without DNA evidence, it's very difficult to exonerate people who may be falsely imprisoned because there's nothing to test to rule them out as suspects.
Without any physical evidence, Ward and Fontenot are likely to remain in prison serving out their sentences for the foreseeable future — no matter what they say about their involvement or lack thereof.