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Point of View: Oklahoma AG can right these wrongs

Lawrence Hellman
Lawrence Hellman

One of the first things Mike Hunter did when he became Oklahoma's attorney general was to right a wrong that happened years earlier.

In 1996, after having spent 13 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Thomas Webb III was exonerated by a Cleveland County judge based on DNA evidence. Webb’s exoneration was part of the impetus for the Legislature’s passage in 2002 of a statute providing modest compensation for people who have been wrongfully convicted in Oklahoma courts. However, when Webb promptly applied for the compensation, his application was erroneously denied.

When Hunter took office in 2017, he found on his desk a new application for compensation that Webb filed in 2016. The AG's office had been holding it up because, it said, Webb should not have waited so long to re-apply. Immediately, with no hearing, no court order and no fanfare, Hunter approved the new application, and Webb got what he should have received 15 years earlier.

Today, Hunter has an opportunity to right two more wrongs that occurred long ago in an Oklahoma court.

In 1985, Karl Fontenot and Tommy Ward were tried together and convicted of murder in Pontotoc County. Flaws in that trial required both men to be retried separately, but they were each re-convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Questions remained.

In August 2019, federal judge James Payne in Muskogee set aside Fontenot’s conviction and ordered him released. Payne’s 191-page opinion cited lapses in the original investigation, including the withholding of evidence pointing to other suspects: “[E]vidence introduced ... was unreliable, contradictory, uncorroborated or simply nonexistent. ... [If the newly disclosed evidence had been available at trial], the Court finds no reasonable juror would have convicted the Petitioner. ...” The AG’s office has appealed.

In December 2020, after an exhaustive review of the record in Ward’s case, District Court Judge Paula Inge vacated Ward's conviction and ordered him released on the same grounds: poor investigation and withheld evidence: “The investigators seem to have taken on the roles of prosecutor, judge and jury, determining that the only ‘relevant’ evidence was evidence that fit their theory of the case.” The AG’s office is considering an appeal.

Fontenot and Ward: Same facts, plus two judges, plus the same findings equals two wrongful convictions plus two exonerations.

These wrongs happened a long time ago. Hunter had nothing to do with them. But now, he can dismiss these appeals and close the books on them. In doing so, he would demonstrate that prosecutors serve as “ministers of justice,” convicting the guilty but also correcting mistaken convictions. What an important example this would be for Oklahoma prosecutors!

There is no shame in conceding mistakes that happened a long time ago. There is honor in righting wrongs.

Hellman is professor emeritus and dean emeritus of the Oklahoma City University School of Law.