The Innocent Man, Netflix’s new binge-worthy true-crime series, is a six-part examination of two seemingly unrelated murder cases that occurred in Ada, Oklahoma, during the 1980s. Without giving too much away, here’s what you need to know about the murders of Debbie Carter and Denice Haraway, and the four men whose claims of innocence were overshadowed by questionable witness testimony, “dream” confessions and other dubious evidence.
There 1982 rape, strangulation and murder of Debbie Carter, 21, and the 1984 disappearance and murder of Denice Haraway, 24, share more than a few common threads. In each case, two men were tried and convicted — in 1988, Ron Williamson was sentenced to death, and Dennis Fritz was sentenced to life in prison for killing Carter; in 1985 Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot were both sentenced to death for Caraway’s purported murder (her remains were not found until 1986). At one point, Williamson, Ward and Fontenot were housed on the same death row. Then, in 1999, Williamson and Fritz were exonerated by DNA evidence and released. Ward and Fontenot haven’t been so lucky.
The Carter and Haraway murder investigations were led by the same Ada Police Department officers, Captain Dennis Smith and Agent Gary Rogers, while Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson served as the prosecutor at both trials. But the similarities go beyond the recurrence of familiar faces in law enforcement that you might find in many small towns. Both trials featured the same jailhouse informant, Terri Holland, who testified that she overheard Williamson confess to Carter’s murder, and then later offered similar testimony about Fontenoy allegedly confessing to killing Haraway.
Both cases relied heavily on dubious “dream” evidence. Ward and Williamson each recounted to investigators that they had dreams about killing the victims, and those statements — which they claimed were coerced — were later framed as “confessions” at their trials. Ward’s dream “confession,” which involved Ward and a third man, was elicited following eight hours of interrogation by the police, and only after they claimed he failed a lie detector test.
Fontonot also confessed to Haraway’s murder — which he later recanted — and named the same man as a third accomplice, but police learned that man had an alibi and he was never charged. Ward and Fontenot each told police that Haraway was raped and then stabbed to death, but gave completely different stories of how and where her body was disposed, neither of which police were able to corroborate. At their trial, District Attorney Peterson had no physical evidence to present, nor did he offer a motive or evidence connecting the defendants to Haraway. Instead, the prosecution’s case almost entirely depended on the pair’s videotaped “confessions,” which despite their contradictions and inconsistencies, led the jury to convict and sentence both men to death.
In a shocking turn of events, according to The Oklahoman, on the day of Ward and Fontenot scheduled execution, Haraway’s remains were discovered, and a stay was issued. Haraway’s remains contradicted numerous key details in their “confessions,” and as a result, their convictions were overturned. Tried separately the second time around, both men were again convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1988, the same year Williamson and Fritz were convicted on similarly flimsy evidence.
In 2013, the Innocence Project took on Fontenot’s case and sought post-conviction relief on the basis of new evidence of innocence, but their request for a hearing was denied because, according to the judge who issued the ruling, “simply, too much time has elapsed due to Petitioner’s own inaction.” They are now pursuing an appeal in Federal court. Ward, whose post-conviction petition was also denied is preparing to file a new appeal as well.
Netflix’s new docuseries, released 30 years after these four men were found guilty, is based on John Grisham’s only non-fiction effort, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, published in 2006. Grisham, who served as an executive producer on the series, predominantly focused his book on Carter’s murder and the wrongful convictions of Williamson and Fritz, while Haraway’s murder and the case against Ward and Fontenot was a recurring subplot. Netflix’s new docuseries gives equal attention to both cases in order to emphasize commonalities in how their cases were handled by police and prosecutors. More importantly, the series raises serious questions about whether Ward and Fontenot, who have maintained their innocence like Williamson and Fritz, were wrongfully convicted as well.