Prisoner seen in Netflix’s The Innocent Man has murder conviction reinstated after previously being granted relief

·2 min read
Tommy Ward in the 2018 Netflix docuseries ‘The Innocent Man' (Netflix)
Tommy Ward in the 2018 Netflix docuseries ‘The Innocent Man' (Netflix)

A prisoner featured in the Netflix documentary series The Innocent Man has had his murder conviction and life sentence reinstated after previously being granted relief.

Thomas Ward, known to the public as Tommy Ward, was convicted in 1999 of the 1984 murder of Donna Denice Haraway in Ada, Oklahoma.

In 2020, District Judge Paula Inge vacated his conviction, dismissed the charges against him, and ordered him set free. Ward remained in prison while the state appealed the ruling, The Associated Press reported at the time.

However, court documents filed on Monday (29 August) show that on Friday (26 August), Oklahoma’s Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the judge’s decision and reinstated Ward’s conviction.

“He’s very disappointed that he’s still in prison for a murder he didn't commit,” Ward’s attorney Mark Barrett told The Associated Press on Tuesday (30 August), adding that the legal team is “pressing forward” and “exploring the possibility of going to federal court.”

The Innocent Man, released by Netflix in 2018, looked at two murder cases having taken place in Ada in the 1980s, including the one which resulted in Ward’s conviction. It was based on the 2006 true-crime book The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town by John Grisham.

Haraway was working as a clerk in a convenience store when she went missing in Ada in 1984. Ward was convicted in the case in 1989 along with a co-defendant named Karl Fontenot.

Per The Associated Press, the convictions “were based almost entirely on accounts they said they retrieved from dreams”, and “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.”

Haraway’s body was located after the convictions. An autopsy showed evidence that she had been shot and no sign that she had been stabbed, per The AP. This contradicted the confessions, which stated that Haraway had been stabbed to death.

Fontenot’s conviction was overturned in 2019, and he was freed pending an appeal by the state. In June this year, the US Supreme Court refused to take up the case and to examine the state’s appeal.

In her 2020 ruling vacating Ward’s conviction, Judge Inge pointed to what she said were issues with the evidence in the case, and deemed that due to the passage of time, Ward would not be able to receive a fair trial.

Oklahoma’s Court of Criminal Appeals, however, argued that the district court had “abused its discretion” in that instance.

The appeals court did task the district court with handling a remaining claim from Ward’s team, according to which newly discovered evidence requires his conviction to be vacated.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press