ADA, Okla. (KFOR) – The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office has filed a response in an ongoing lawsuit to keep a convicted murderer behind bars, even after a district judge vacated his life sentence and called for his immediate release.
Tommy Ward has been in prison 35 years for a murder he swears he did not commit.
Ward’s case was the focus of the Netflix documentary “The Innocent Man,” which was released in 2018.
The case was particularly shocking because Ward and his alleged accomplice, Karl Fontenot, confessed to the 1984 murder of Denise Haraway in Ada.
However, some psychological experts now believe both suspects may have been coerced by detectives because their confessions contained little to no accurate information about the crime.
The Ada Police Department has come under fire in recent years for suspicious investigation tactics.
In fact, two other confessed murderers, who were convicted around the same time as Ward and Fontenot, have already been exonerated by DNA evidence.
Their confessions were found to be coerced by overzealous investigators.
In December of 2020, District Judge Paula Inge vacated the conviction of Tommy Ward, ruling he did not receive a fair trial because the state withheld evidence in the case and because a fair trail would be impossible so many years after the crime.
“There was a witness we had no idea existed until 2019,” said Ward’s attorney, Greg Swygert. “That witness was at the convenience store, gas station, within an hour of Ms. Haraway’s disappearance. That person we cannot find. We have no trail on that person; and that person was not known until 2019.”
Ward’s family believed he would be let out of prison after Judge Inge’s ruling.
However, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office is appealing the decision and sought a stay in the case, which was upheld by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
That stay requires Ward to remain in prison while his appeal in pending.
Ward’s accomplice, Karl Fontenot, has already been released from prison, following a ruling by a Federal Appeals Court in Muskogee, Oklahoma overturning his life sentence.
Fontenot’s appeal is also ongoing.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals will make a final decision on whether Tommy Ward will be released from prison while fighting this appeal.
On Friday, the attorney general filed a brief asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to reverse the district court’s most recent ruling to toss out Ward’s conviction, or allow the state to re-try Tommy Ward.
“We’re happy for a re-trial,” Swygert said. “We just want a trial where it’s fair, fair for Tommy and Karl. It seems the Attorney General should agree to that since they realize and they don’t deny that all of this evidence was withheld.”
The attorney general called Judge Inge’s decision to vacate the judgment and sentence, dismiss all charges and call for immediate discharge an “abuse of discretion with no basis in Oklahoma post-conviction law.”
The AG also argued in the filing too much time has elapsed for Ward to be granted this type of post-conviction relief.
“It doesn’t seem fair when they say the trial wasn’t fair because they withheld evidence, and then they say, ‘Well, you waited too long.'” Swygert said. “Shouldn’t we have the trial to begin with where it’s fair? Let’s have that as a starting place.”
Ward’s defense team will have an additional 30 days to respond to the most recent filing.
At that point, the court will either make a ruling on Ward’s incarceration or ask for oral arguments.
The attorney general’s office is not offering any additional comments on the case.