He thought the police would recognize this was just a dream, not reality.
Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin bring us a story from Ada, Oklahoma where a young woman went missing. A few months after her disappearance, a man named Tommy Ward told police that he’d had a bad dream about her murder. Incredibly, the police took that dream and turned it into a false confession... and into a prison sentence that continues to this day, 35 years later.
Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co No1
A portion of this podcast series’ proceeds will be donated to the Center on Wrongful Convictions. To donate, learn more, or get involved, go to http://www.centeronwrongfulconvictions.org/
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Laura Nirider Welcome to Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions. I'm Laura Nirider.
Steve Drizin And I'm Steve Drizin.
Laura Nirider In 1984, a woman from Ada, Oklahoma, went missing. A few months later, a man named Tommy Ward told police that he'd had a bad dream about her murder. Incredibly, the police took that dream and turned it into a false confession. Tommy Ward's story has fascinated the world. In 2006, the author John Grisham wrote a book about Tommy and his codefendant, Karl Fontenot. John's career as a writer was changed by Tommy and Karl's case, but he's not the only one who's been moved by it. A few years ago, their story was made into a Netflix Global series called The Innocent Man. Now, the whole world has been moved too. It's our honor to be part of the fight to exonerate Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot. Here's hoping we can deliver a wake-up call in this nightmare of a case.
John Grisham I'm John Grisham, author of a number of legal thrillers and one work of nonfiction. About 15 years ago, I found myself in Ada, Oklahoma, doing the research for a nonfiction book that was eventually titled The Innocent Man. It's just a truly fascinating case, because there were no clues. There were no witnesses. There was no body. There was no corpse. There was no murder weapon. There was nothing. But Tommy Ward confessed to the crime. And from that moment on, he was a guilty man. The judge allowed this case to go forward without a body. Even on my most creative days, I'm not sure I could create stuff like this. Once I started researching Tommy's case, Karl's case, I realized that there are thousands of innocent people in prison and I never realized that before. At that point, I moved away for the most part from suspense, intrigue, thrillers, to something still similar, but much more issue driven. Capital punishment, wrongful conviction, mass incarceration, the issues I care about in the criminal justice system, and the injustices that we tolerate when we could fix this stuff, if we had the will to do it. So the Tommy Ward/Karl Fontenot case had a profound impact on me as a writer.
Laura Nirider You know, Steve, John Grisham's right. In this case, the truth really is stranger than fiction. This is one of the most bizarre kinds of false confessions you can imagine.
Steve Drizin This case is fascinating because it is about a dream that is converted by police officers into a confession. Cases like this are extremely rare.
Laura Nirider Right, I mean, how many dream cases do you know about?
Steve Drizin I've studied hundreds of false confessions and, maybe, there's a dozen of them.
Laura Nirider To our listeners: If you haven't heard the story, get ready. It's an incredible one. If you have read John Grisham's book or seen the Netflix series, we have some new developments to share with you.
Steve Drizin Because attorneys at the Center on Wrongful Convictions, the organization you and I co-direct, have uncovered new information that makes it clear that Tommy Ward is innocent.
Laura Nirider But he's still in prison. He's been there for 35 years. He needs to come home now.
Steve Drizin Right now.
Laura Nirider Tommy's story starts in the town of Ada, a rural Oklahoma community of about 17,000 people. It's a Bible Belt town where the churches are full, but the factories are empty. In Ada, poverty can sometimes make justice seem like a faraway dream. In 1984, Denice Haraway was one of Ada's 17,000 people. Denice was 24 years old, a petite blond woman who'd recently gotten married. She was enrolled in college and helped pay tuition by working the evening shift, by herself, at McAnally's convenience store. But when customers walked into McAnally's at 8:50 p.m. on April 28th, they found an open cash register and no attendant in sight. Denice had vanished. There'd be no sign of her for a year and a half. Ada police started investigating Denice's disappearance and, right away, they suspected foul play. A customer who'd been at McAnally's earlier that evening told police he'd seen Denice leave the store with a strange man who drove her away in a pickup truck. Police also spoke to a female clerk at a different nearby convenience store. She reported that a few hours before Denice disappeared, two men came into her store. "They were rowdy," she said, "and kept buying alcohol." They made her nervous. She gave the cops some rough descriptions, and a police artist made two composite sketches. In terms of evidence, that was it. No one knew what happened to Denice. There was no body, no sightings, no nothing. Police showed the composite sketches on TV and asked for the public's help. Dozens of tips were phoned in. A few callers thought that the sketches looked a little bit like a 24-year-old Ada man named Tommy Ward. Now, the Ward family was poor. They lived on Ada's south side in the part of town that everyone knew was on the wrong side of the tracks. Growing up, there were eight kids in the house. Tommy was number seven. Everyone, children included, was expected to pitch in to keep the lights on and the rent paid. The older kids would work. The younger kids would spend hot Oklahoma summers walking along the highway, searching for empty beer cans that they could turn in for a five cent deposit. The Wards were a law-abiding family. When Tommy was a teenager, he'd been arrested a few times for petty crimes like public drunkenness, but nothing serious. The idea of him suddenly kidnapping Denice Haraway was pretty crazy. Despite this, police brought Tommy in for questioning just a few days after Denice's disappearance. Tommy told them he had nothing to do with Denice. In fact, he said, on the night she disappeared, he was at a keg party, out of town, 25 miles away. Police released Tommy and tracked down some other partygoers. Several of them confirmed Tommy's alibi. But police also caught wind of a rumor that had been spreading around town. Tommy supposedly told others at the party that he'd done something "terrible." That one word was apparently enough to make the cops think that Tommy had killed Denice. They bring Tommy back to the station months later, on October 18, 1984, for what would become nine hours of interrogation. "Who killed that girl?" "Did you kill her?" "You thought she was pretty, didn't you?" The questions come fast and furious, but Tommy still denies having anything to do with Denice's disappearance. He reminds his interrogators of his alibi, but they administer a polygraph. They falsely tell Tommy that it proved he'd been lying. That's when the interrogation turns nightmarish. Tommy tells the cops that maybe he failed the polygraph because he was nervous. In fact, he says, knowing he was a suspect in this case had upset him so much that he had a bad dream. "Tell us about your dream," the police say, and Tommy does. In the dream, Tommy was out by Ada's local power plant, sitting in a pickup truck with three people he didn't know: two men and a woman. One of the men tried to kiss the woman and Tommy told him to back off. Then Tommy said he wanted to go home. You're already home, the man answered. Suddenly, Tommy was standing at his kitchen sink, trying to scrub a dark liquid off his hands. The cops pounced. "Your dream," they say, "matches the facts of the case. There's a pickup truck in your dream, and we believe Denice was kidnapped in a pickup truck." "It doesn't make sense to say this was just a dream," they say. "You know what does make sense? You and these other two men killing Denice." So where did the story in Tommy's dream come from? Turns out, a few days before this nine-hour interrogation, police had briefly talked to Tommy.
Steve Drizin And during that questioning, the police officers said to Tommy, "Use your imagination for just a moment. This girl was taken out of a grocery store at night. Two guys come in and got her, and they got in a pickup and they drove away. A beautiful girl like that. Maybe they raped her before they killed her." That is a direct quote from these detectives. The police officers had planted the core ideas of this crime in Tommy's mind, including the pickup truck; which, remember, is a detail that a witness had already told them about. And Tommy began to have nightmares about the story the police told him.
Laura Nirider The interrogation continues for hours. Police tell Tommy he'll get the death penalty if he doesn't confess to killing Denice. Eventually, Tommy caves. He starts changing his dream to include what the police tell him. In his dream, he says, he did recognize the other guys. They were two Ada men named Karl Fontenot and Odell Titsworth. He dreamed that they'd robbed McAnally's together, that they'd kidnapped Denice and raped her in a pickup truck. They stabbed her in the dream, too, he says, and left her body in a culvert by the power plant. After nine hours of this, police bring in a video camera. According to Tommy, they say, "Time to cut the dream bullshit. This wasn't something you dreamed; it was something you did."
Interrogator Tommy, how far do you live from the power plant where Denice Haraway was killed?
Tommy Ward I live about... I'll estimate about two blocks.
Interrogator Why did you go to the power plant?
Tommy Ward Titsworth was driving, and he pulled over.
Laura Nirider Tommy finds himself repeating the whole story on camera, not as a dream, but as cold, hard reality.
Interrogator Who was the first person in the store?
Tommy Ward Titsworth.
Interrogator Did he have any kind of weapon?
Tommy Ward Yes, he had a knife. He told me that he was going to kill her after we got out to the power plant.
Interrogator Do you understand how serious this investigation is?
Tommy Ward Yes, I do.
Laura Nirider Incredibly, the police have transformed Tommy's dream into a murder confession.
Steve Drizin Let's talk a little bit about dream statements. You know, there comes a point in every interrogation where the police officers have tried to get the suspect to confess, and the suspect just says, "Well, I have no memory of committing this crime." Or, "I can't help you; I wasn't there." And then either the police officers suggest to the suspect: Have you had any dreams about this case? Or, the suspect will suggest on his own accord, "You know, I have had some dreams about this." And what that does is it gives police officers something to exploit. It allows the conversation to continue, and the police officers end up converting what was a dream into a confession.
Laura Nirider During Tommy's videotaped statement, the only lingering reference to any of this being a dream comes at the very end. "Is there anything else you want to add?" police ask him. "I thought it was just a dream," Tommy quietly says.
Steve Drizin He always thought that the police officers would recognize this is not reality. Go out, investigate the case, and you're going to find out that this is all a bunch of horseshit.
Laura Nirider Based on his so-called confession, Tommy Ward found himself in jail, charged with capital murder. And the investigation that's to come? Well, "horseshit" is exactly the right word.
Melvin Ward I was stationed on an aircraft carrier when my sister called and started telling me that they had gotten Tommy for this. It was not a good day.
Laura Nirider That's Melvin Ward, one of Tommy's older brothers. He was in the service when he found out that Tommy had been arrested, and he flew back to Ada right away.
Melvin Ward I did not believe it. I thought, well, you know, that he's going to get off on this because I know he didn't do it. It's not Tommy's character to do something like this. He was not a bad kid. He never hurt anybody. He'd stay out of trouble, other than a few public drunks. Tommy would have been the kind of person that, if somebody was attacking this lady, he would have been there to protect her. That's Tommy. Tommy did nothing for them to go after him like they did, other than we living on the other side of the tracks. We was not in the proper society at the time. They believed that Tommy was guilty, and they was going to pull no stops to get him to confess. And that's not proper police work at all.
Laura Nirider Tommy wasn't the only person from the wrong side of the tracks who got ensnared in this case. Within hours, police arrest Tommy's dream accomplices, Karl Fontenot and Odell Titsworth, and question them both. Karl was 20 years old, a friend of Tommy's who was seriously intellectually disabled and pretty much alone in the world.
Melvin Ward Karl was a nice guy. I know my mom liked him. And my mom, bless her heart, she was a good judge character. At the time, she was working at one of the convenience stores down there in Ada, and the kid would come in and he didn't have much of a family. She would give him a sandwich from the store every now and then. And I think Tommy met Karl by... He was sleeping on my sister's front porch. Tommy kind of took Karl under his wing, and they become friends.
Laura Nirider To understand how Karl's interrogation went down, you need to know that a few months earlier, Karl had witnessed his own mother's death. The two of them had been driving on the highway when their car broke down. Karl's mom got out and headed for a nearby restaurant to call for help. But as she was crossing the highway, she was hit and killed by another car. Karl felt terrible guilt. He blamed himself for not being the one who'd gone for help. It was that sense of guilt, along with his disability, that police used to manipulate Karl during his interrogation. The police suggested that Karl should make amends for his mom's death by saying he was involved in Denice's death.
Steve Drizin Can you imagine the trauma he must have been experiencing? I mean, he saw his mother die. The police officers used that prior traumatic event to help break down Karl into accepting responsibility for Denice's death. And he caved much sooner than Tommy did.
Laura Nirider Just like with Tommy, police took a videotaped statement from Karl. In it, he agreed that he helped Odell Titsworth and Tommy Ward rape and stab Denice.
Interrogator Karl, let me ask you this: At any point in time, did you stab her?
Karl Fortenot No, I did not; nor did Tommy. Odell done all the stabbing right there.
Interrogator Did y'all try to stop him from stabbing her?
Karl Fortenot No.
Laura Nirider Karl even said they'd burned her body afterwards.
Interrogator Who spread the gas then?
Karl Fortenot Odell. He poured all the gas on her and everything. We threw the match on her and walked out. And then the house just burned up on the inside.
Laura Nirider Based on this confession, Karl Fontenot was charged with Denice's death, right alongside Tommy.
Melvin Ward Knowing that Tommy was innocent, that made me know that Karl was innocent. Tommy, it took them almost nine hours to break him down; and Karl, he was a little bit more susceptible to their interrogation... I think an hour and 45 minutes.
Laura Nirider But the supposed third guy, Odell Titsworth? Well, he's another story. Odell was a four-time convicted felon with experience in the interrogation room. When police question him about Denice, he doesn't budge an inch. "I don't care what Ward and Fontenot say," he insists, "I had nothing to do with Denice's disappearance." Now, Odell is thrown in jail anyway, but pretty soon it becomes clear that he's got a great alibi. Two days before Denice's disappearance, Odell had an altercation with the police, and they'd broken his arm badly. On the night Denice disappeared, Odell Titsworth was laid up with a spiral fracture. Struggle with a grown woman? Hold her down and rape her? Stab her? It was physically impossible. Odell was cleared.
Melvin Ward This is one point I've always tried to wrap around people's head. If they were not being fed information, how did both them boys come up with a totally innocent man's name? It can't happen. See what I'm saying?
Laura Nirider While Odell Titsworth got to go home, Tommy and Karl weren't so lucky. Prosecutors pressed forward with cases against Tommy and Karl, even though their confessions turned out to be wildly different. The confessions didn't agree on who raped Denice, where she was stabbed, or when she died. And when it came to the big question: Where was Denice... The confessions disagreed there, too. Remember, Tommy said they'd left her body in a culvert near the power plant. But Karl said they'd burned Denice's body in an abandoned house, and then they burned the house down too. The authorities checked out both stories, but they found no sign of Denice in either the culvert or the abandoned house. In fact, Karl's abandoned house actually burned down 10 months before Denice disappeared. Their confessions just didn't match reality. In a last-ditch effort to get Karl to clean up his story, police try something pretty outrageous.
Steve Drizin So Karl is sitting in jail. He's just confessed to this crime. And the police officers go to a local university and gather a bunch of bones-
Laura Nirider From the science lab, human bones.
Steve Drizin They bring this bag of bones into the jail, and they say, "We found Denice Haraway's skull where you said it was, but we can't find the rest of her body." And Karl can't answer the question. He says, "I wish I could help, but I don't know where her body is."
Laura Nirider Karl's terrified he can't tell him a thing. I mean, what the fuck is this?
Steve Drizin I've never seen this before, Laura. This is just beyond the pale.
Laura Nirider Karl and Tommy were tried together on September 24, 1985. At trial, prosecutors called a McAnally's customer named James Moyer. Moyer testified that he'd seen someone who looked like Tommy Ward in the store an hour before Denice disappeared. That's pretty thin evidence, but the prosecutors had more. As the centerpiece of the trial, they played Tommy and Karl's confession tapes for the jury. Prosecutors conceded that, sure, Tommy and Karl got a lot of things wrong. Sure, their confessions were false when it came to Odell's involvement. And sure, the facts that they seemed to get right, like the pickup truck, had been fed to them by their interrogators. But set all that aside, prosecutors said. We've got proof, they said, that Tommy and Karl's confessions are reliable... A real ace in the hole. So, what was that proof? Prosecutors argued that Tommy and Karl's confessions could be trusted because they both accurately described what Denice was wearing the night she disappeared. During Tommy's confession, he said Denice was wearing a button-up blouse with little blue roses on it, and lace on the collar and sleeves. Similarly, Karl had said she was wearing a button-up blouse with ruffles on the collar and elastic on the sleeves. Now, prosecutors said at the time of the confessions the police had no idea what Denice had been wearing, so the interrogators couldn't have fed details about the blouse to Tommy and Karl. The only explanation for Tommy and Karl's matching stories was that they had both actually been with Denice that night. To really clinch the case, Denice's sister took the stand and revealed that Denice did own a blouse with blue flowers and a lacy, ruffled collar. Also, after Denice disappeared, the sister reported that that blouse was missing from Denice's closet. Denice's sister said she hadn't told police about the missing blouse until after Tommy and Karl confessed.
Steve Drizin Going into trial, the police and prosecutors have two confessions that are at odds with the objectively knowable facts of the crime. There's no corroboration of this confession, and it's filled with errors. But the police have one fact that is the anchor of their case. The defense counsel had no explanation for why both Tommy and Karl, independently, had described Denice's missing blouse the same way.
Laura Nirider That anchor ended up taking both Tommy and Karl down. On day 13 of the trial, the jury returned a verdict. Both men were guilty of murdering Denice Haraway. Shortly afterwards, the judge sentenced Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot to death.
Melvin Ward The district attorney got a conviction on these boys because of the description of the shirt that supposedly no one knew at the time of their confessions. I knew that Tommy and Karl were innocent, but having Tommy and Karl both say something about that shirt, that was a pretty hard thing to get past.
Steve Drizin These men were sentenced to death on the basis of a single fact: a description of a blouse. Tommy and Karl were able to lead police to evidence that they didn't already have. I mean, these are the kinds of facts that you and I look at when we assess the reliability of a confession, Laura. And if police don't know information and the suspect leads them to it, that's a red flag for a reliable confession.
Laura Nirider How could Tommy and Karl have been wrong about so many facts, yet right about this fact? Despite it all, could they possibly be guilty? It sure looked that way, at least at first. Decades would pass before we found out the truth. There's so much more to this case, more than we can tell you today. So join us next week as we close our second season. We'll bring you part two of the story of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot. Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good Podcasts, in association with Signal Co. No1. Special thanks to our executive producers, Jason Flom and Kevin Wortis. Our production team is headed by senior producer Anne Pope, along with producers Jaji Hammer and Jess Shane. Our show is mixed by Jeanne Montalvo. John Colbert is our intrepid intern. Our music was composed by J. Ralph. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter @LauraNirider.
Steve Drizin And you can follow me on Twitter @SDrizin.