Court rules 'Innocent Man' defendant to remain imprisoned

This photo provided by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections shows Tommy Ward, who has spent 35 years in prison in a murder case featured in the book and television series The Innocent Man'. The Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021 that 60-year-old Tommy Ward remain imprisoned while the state appeals the lower court's ruling. (Oklahoma Department of Corrections via AP) (Uncredited)

OKLAHOMA CITY – A man who has spent 35 years in prison in a murder case featured in the book and television series “The Innocent Man” must remain incarcerated even after a judge ordered his release, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

The Court of Criminal Appeals ordered Tommy Ward, 60, to remain imprisoned while the state appeals the lower court’s ruling that he be released.

Ward and a co-defendant, Karl Fontenot, were convicted and sentenced to life in prison in the 1984 kidnapping and killing of Donna Denice Haraway, a convenience store clerk in Ada, Oklahoma.

But a Pontotoc County district judge ruled last month that prosecutors withheld key evidence in the case, including witness interviews and police reports, and ordered Ward's release.

“The Pontotoc County District Attorney's office relied solely on investigators to provide it with the evidence needed to prosecute the case without questioning whether the investigators had turned over all exculpatory and/or impeachment evidence," Judge Paula Inge wrote in her December order. “The investigators seem to have taken on the role of prosecutor, judge and jury, determining that the only “relevant" evidence was evidence that fit their theory of the case."

The Oklahoma attorney general's office, which appealed Inge's order, declined to comment on Thursday's ruling.

“I’m still holding out hope that the attorney general of Oklahoma will change course here, take a close look at the case," said Greg Swygert, one of Ward's attorneys. “When you read their briefs, they don’t take issue with the fact that this information was withheld from him. They can't. It's clear as day."

Fontenot, Ward's co-defendant, was ordered released by a federal judge in 2019, and the state is also appealing that order.

The convictions of Ward and Fontenot have come under intense scrutiny for years and have been the subject of numerous books, including John Grisham’s “The Innocent Man,” which he produced into a six-part documentary.

The convictions were based almost entirely on accounts they said they retrieved from dreams. These “dream confessions” came after hours of interrogation by Ada police and state agents desperate to solve the disappearance of Haraway in 1984, just two years after the unsolved rape and murder of another young woman in the small central Oklahoma town.

After the details of both men’s confessions were proven untrue — Haraway’s body was discovered years later in a different location and had been shot to death not stabbed as the pair had said — a state appeals court ordered new trials. Local prosecutors again secured their convictions, based largely on their confessions.