To our listeners, this episode is part two of the story of Tammy Ward and Carl Fontenelle. Two days before we were scheduled to release this episode, Steve and I learned about breaking news in Tommy's case. And it's the kind of news that reminds us why we do this work. So you'll hear this episode as we originally recorded it, but with a special update at the end, no spoilers. But for Tommy and Carl, it's starting to look like justice might not be just a dream after all.
Welcome to wrongful conviction, false confessions. I'm Laura Nightrider. And I'm Steve Drazen. Today, we bring you back to ADA, Oklahoma, for the second half of our story about Tommy Ward and Carl Fontanelle. When we left off last week, Tommy and Carl were sitting on death row after police turned Tommy's bad dream into a murder confession. This week, we'll tell you about some serious twists in the case from the discovery of the victim's body to the revelation of hidden evidence that turned this case upside down.
We'll update you on everything that's happened since the eighteen Netflix series The Innocent Man told Tommy and Carl's story. There's been some very good news for one of them and a lot of hope for the other. Steve, for those listeners who missed last week's episode, let's tell them what happened in ADA, Oklahoma. Denise Haddaway, a 24 year old woman, goes missing. She vanishes. The police bring Tommy Ward in for questioning and it got ugly fast.
Tommy told the police about this nightmare he'd had about Denise's disappearance. And over a nine hour interrogation, police turned that dream into a confession.
They even hauled in Tommy's friend Carl Fantino and got him to confess to. But here's the thing. These confessions were riddled with errors. They named a third perpetrator who had a rock solid alibi.
They repeated the story that police fed to Tommy and Carl without adding anything new. These confessions were obviously, obviously false.
Now, going into trial, the prosecutors have two confessions that are at odds with the objectively knowable facts of the crime. But they thought they had an ace in the hole. And that ace in the hole was a single fact that both Tommy and Carl had told to police officers a description of a blouse that Denise Harry was wearing at the time that she was abducted, a blouse that it turned out was missing from Denise's wardrobe, a blouse which even the police did not know about at the time they interviewed Tommy Ankor.
But based on this one detail in their confessions, Tommy and Carl were convicted of murder. And remember, four bodies still hadn't been found when they were convicted.
No body, no bones, no motive, nothing but a description of Denise Holloway's blouse. And they are on death row because of that. That's where we pick up the story.
Three months after Tommy and Carl were convicted, a wake up call arrived in the case that was built on a dream on January 21st, 1986. A man was walking through a field in Gerti, Oklahoma, when he found a skull under some brush. Police found more human remains spread across the field and dental records confirmed a match. Finally, they'd found Denise Garroway. This discovery produced a new round of problems with Tommie and Carlos Confession's Denise had been found unclothed 20 miles away from where Tommie and Carl had said they'd left her.
Her body hadn't been burned at all, despite the fact that Carl had said they'd set her on fire. And the medical examiner confirmed, even though Tommie and Carl had said Denise had been stabbed, that never happened. She'd actually been shot in the head.
It's like they're describing a completely different crimes from what happened to Denise Garroway.
Both Tommy and Carlos convictions were reversed on appeal, but not because Denise's body had been found. It was because the judge ruled they shouldn't have been tried together. Prosecutors went ahead and tried both Tommie and Carl again, this time separately, but using the same evidence as before. When the second trial came up, of course, they had found her remains and everything they found at the crime scene had proved Tommy's confession wrong. Nothing was right about it.
That's Tommy Ward's brother, Melvin. He's been advocating for Tommy's innocence for over 30 years.
Our health was high. I mean, how can you ignore, you know, that she was shot back of the head and here you are, two boys. And it was she was stabbed. She was never stabbed that evening. Coroner's report states at.
But believe it or not, the second trials were deja vu all over again. Just like before, the prosecutors relied on the fact that Tommy and Carl had both said Denise was wearing a blue flowered, ruffled blouse. The police hadn't known anything about the blouse before the interrogation.
The prosecutors insisted that fact couldn't have been fed.
Imagine you're a prosecutor and you have to stand up in front of a jury and present them with a confession. They can't tell you what happened to Denise, who did it or even where the crime occurred. That's what these prosecutors had to do. But they did it well enough, well enough to convict both Tommy and Carl.
A second time when Tommy heard the verdict, he began to sob uncontrollably. You're all liars, he shouted at the prosecutors. I'm being punished for something I didn't do. I don't know.
I still have a hard time. I actually thought it would be a hung jury to say one. Confessions are hard to get by, people still believe that. Why did you confess if you didn't do it? So their confessions were similar, but they also was of you know, I'm not a lawyer by any means, but I could not say how 12 adult jurors could just ignore all the other evidence.
And that's what they did. Head to head, Tommy was already convicted on his confession, confession sunk this time around, Tommy Ward and Carl Fontenelle were ultimately sentenced to life in prison.
That's been 35 years ago. Plus. Thirty five years later, I'm still waiting to get out, Tommie and Carl went off to prison to serve their life sentences years past and their appeals were denied one after another.
Tommy was a kid that he'd take in strays, for instance. You know what I mean by strange? I don't mean to stray dogs. Like one time we found a hawk that had a broken wing. He took that hog and nursed it back to health and let it go.
Manulife would wait for years when I saw him every two or three weeks, mama religiously go see him.
Even today he calls me every week almost in prison.
He got in carpentry and I understand very good at it. It builds a prefab homes there. And everybody that knows me ever worries that even in prison, everybody likes him. You know, he's a good Christian man. He's honest. And, you know, he just. Just not in him to do what they claim he did. Tommy had befriended Carl Fontanella when Carl had no family or home. He wasn't much different from those other strays Tommy took in in prison.
While Tommy worked carpentry jobs, Carl pursued a different kind of woodworking. He taught himself the lonely skill of building picture frames out of toothpicks and glue, even though he didn't have any photos of loved ones to go in them. While Tommy and Carl sat in an Oklahoma prison, word started spreading about this mysterious case that was built on the dream. Two books were written about it, one in 1987 and a second in 2006. This was a case that captured the imagination of an investigative reporter named Robert Mayer, who wrote a classic wrongful conviction book entitled Dreams of ADA.
And then none other than John Grisham wrote a book about this case.
This is the only nonfiction book Grisham ever wrote. And like he told us in the last episode, even he couldn't make up a story like this.
Eventually, Grissom's book, The Innocent Man, would be turned into a Netflix series which was released in 2008. Finally, somebody was taking notice to start to believe in Tommy's story.
I mean, it's even gone so far where I get on Facebook, people on the outside world, I mean, Ukrainian and in places Italy, you know, wishing Tommy well and believing in his innocence, it's just pretty amazing.
While journalists were telling Tommy and Karl stories, the two men sat behind bars for decades. Both still insisted on their innocence. They needed post conviction lawyers to take their case, but any new legal team would face a problem. No DNA evidence existed that could prove Tommy and Carlie's innocence.
How on earth would any lawyers go about exonerating them?
It was a case, turns out, that was made for the organization that Steve and I are lucky enough to of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.
The purpose of the Center on Wrongful Convictions is to identify and rectify wrongful convictions and other serious miscarriages of justice.
Here is the co-founder of our center, renowned journalist, Rob Warden.
We thought that it was important to have an organization that would investigate cases in which there was no DNA, but there was other persuasive evidence of actual innocence. Now, these cases are much harder to prove than DNA, but they are no less compelling. The Center on Wrongful Convictions was a first innocence project in the country that was taking on DNA cases as well as DNA cases.
In 2006, when the center had been around for about seven years, Rob heard about Tommy Ward's case and he couldn't forget what he learned.
We wouldn't even have had a wrongful conviction movement were it not initially for vibrant investigative reporting. John Grisham and I had a conversation about the Tommy Ward case when he was in Chicago. The thing that was so striking about the Ward Fontanelle case was that the dreams conflicted with known physical facts of the crime.
So we have this evidence that the dream confessions are false and that quite clearly the ideas here were implanted in the minds of both Tommy and Carl by the police.
The case probably never should have been brought. It still has an immensely powerful evidence of actual innocence, and that's why the Center on Wrongful Convictions got involved. And we've been involved in it for the ensuing a dozen or 13 years. Still fighting.
Now, here is one thing that fascinated Rob about the case and about ADA, Oklahoma. Turns out Tommy Ward wasn't the only innocent man from ADA who was convicted of murder based on a dream confession.
Ron Williamson was a minor league baseball player who had been sentenced to death based on a dream that he described to police about the crime. He was exonerated by DNA.
So this was an intriguing situation for me of the 12 no dream confessions in the history of false confessions. We have two of them coming from ADA, Oklahoma, this small seventeen thousand person town. What are the chances of that? It's like a cancer cluster. What's going on here is that these interrogators were hell bent on solving high profile murders and they were converting dreams into confessions. This was part and parcel of their arsenal of tactics to break suspects down and get them to confess.
And they were getting false confessions.
If that other dream confession was false, if Ron Williamson had been exonerated, maybe Tommy and Carl could be exonerated to our colleagues at the Center on Wrongful Convictions partnered with Oklahoma attorney Mark Barrett to represent Tommy Ward, Carl Fantino also got new representation together. Both legal teams dug into the case of Denise Heroes' disappearance.
And what did they find? Not DNA, but they did find evidence of innocence that was equally compelling. A whole box of investigative reports that had not been disclosed to Tommy or Carlie's defense, 860 pages of secret evidence. And the contents of those reports talk about a dream come true.
The discovery of this box is a development that occurred after all the books after the Netflix series. And it's a development that blows this case wide open.
The prosecution, it turns out, as we now have learned, had concealed a huge body of exculpatory evidence, including evidence corroborating Tommy Ward's alibi that he had been at a party with a bunch of people at the exact time of the abduction and couldn't have been involved in that box.
There was also a full recantation from Carl Fontenelle, which he wrote just days after he confessed.
There were police reports showing that the only witness who put Tommy Ward at McConnells that night, James Moyer, had completely changed his description several times of whoever it was he saw.
But what about that blouse with the blue flowers and lacy collar, that magical proof that Tommy and Carl must be guilty because their interrogators didn't know what Denise was wearing in that box?
The lawyers found a draft missing persons report written by the police, but never actually circulated to either the public or to defense counsel in this case. That report described the blouse that Denise was wearing on the day she was abducted. It said that Denise Holloway was wearing a blouse with blue flowers and lace around the neckline. And that report was dated one day after Denise's disappearance. That's months before the interrogations. So the police knew what Denise was wearing before they interrogated both Tommy and Carl.
And there was more in the box. Lawyers also found an undated reports of an interview with Denise's sister, which is probably where police got the information for the missing persons bulletin.
In it, she described Denise as wearing a buttoned down blouse with small blue flowers that had lace around the collar and elastic on the sleeves. These are the same details, the same words that ended up in Tammy and Carl's confessions not to play on stereotypes. But what are the odds that these two rough and tumble dudes from rural Oklahoma would have described a woman's lacy blouse using exactly the same words as Denise's sister?
This eviscerates the state's case, the one fact, the blouse fact that put these men on death row. We now know that the police knew about it before they interrogated Tommy Carl. We now know that Denise's sister told them about it shortly after she disappeared. Now we know it must have been said to them by the same police officers who fed so many other facts to them, that anchor that police claimed was the basis of conviction in both trial one and trial two.
You got to pull that anchor up because remember, there's nothing else in this case. There's no other evidence.
It was the one unanswerable fact and now it's answerable. The confessions no longer convict Tommy and Carl.
The detective said they didn't know the description of their shirt until after Tommy's and Carl's confession. Well, we kind of have proof now that that's not true. These detectives got both of them to mention his wife's name in there. They added the description of the shirt in there. It was just much these detectives confession. It was Tommy and Carl's. I guess that's the best way of saying that.
So much for the prosecution's ace in the hole. Police had known all along what Denise was wearing when she disappeared. Tommy and Carl were innocent.
I know I don't understand law or anything, but here you have a blatant miscarriage of justice because it's their job to hand over all the evidence to, you know, the defense. But the prosecuting attorney did not do that. That's a violation of their rights.
When you put this all together, there is just no question that Tommy Ward and Carl Fontanelle are absolutely innocent of this crime and have been the victims of one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in the history of the United States. The confessions of Tommy Ward and Carl Fontanelle are worthless. There is nothing holding this case together at all based on these new discoveries.
Both Tommy and Carl filed petitions for relief, Tommy in state court and Carl in federal court.
Carl's judge was the first to act in 2019. He threw out Carl Fontana's, his conviction.
After 34 years behind bars, Carl was released on bond. He's finally free.
I'm absolutely delighted that Carl now has been released. Of course, the damage that's been done to him can never be undone. Nobody can ever make this right for Carl, but at least he is no longer in prison.
And when he was released, he was welcomed with open arms by a new community, a new family, the community of exonerations from the state of Oklahoma.
But justice in this case won't be complete until Tommy Ward is free.
I was very happy for Carroll and Tommy's very type of girl. And of course, it shows hope for Tommy because a lot of the things that the federal judge had come out with also falls under Tommy's case.
As of this recording, Tommy's still waiting behind bars for his judge to decide whether he can walk free to.
Tommy's been waiting for that decision for 35 years. And God, we hope it's the right one.
I would guess Tommy would be dreaming about freedom now in this case, that started with a nightmare. There are new things to hope for now, doors opening, chains being removed, family embracing you and taking you home. These are the things that all wrongfully convicted people hope for until finally one day those dreams come true. I have more hope for Tommy now than I've had in a long time. After 35 years of knowing that your little brother is in prison for something he didn't do, you want him out?
We want him out bad and he deserves to be alive. If there's any justice in this world, he'll be out one of these days. 15 years after author John Grisham started researching this case, he still speaks with Tommy Ward all the time and remains a strong advocate for Tommy's freedom.
Tommy prays for me and I pray for him. Tommy, relax. I'm OK. We're about yourself. That's not the kind of guy he is. He has a long prayer list and he keeps a lot of people on that list. And Tommy would probably go to work helping people when he got out, when he gets out. This is an innocent man. Get him out of prison. That's what should happen.
Hello, this is a collect call from Thomas Moore, an inmate at the Clinton Correctional Center. You may start the conversation now. Hello.
Hey, Tommy, this is Laura and this is Steve. Tommy. Hi, Tommy. How are you doing? OK.
Saying my prayers have to be coming to an end, so we sure hope so.
Can you tell us how you pass your time these days? Well, I mean, trying to keep there's been you know, and there are a lot of with hobby crafts for you, like Christmas presents or birthday presents and an occasional visitor and that you've had so many ups and downs over the past decades that you've been locked up.
Do you allow yourself to think about what you're going to want to do when you get out?
Yeah, I like work and I'd like to open up my own wood shop. And I always thought of, you know, the elderly people where I could go out and maybe lower their candidates forum in a house like that, you know, make it like a wheelchair accessible where they can stay at home longer instead of having to go to a nursing home.
Yeah, that would be pretty meaningful work to do. Do you get letters from people who have watched your story on TV or who've read the books? Oh, yeah, it's a blessing to hear from everybody that has written to me one after the. So it's getting lost.
A lot of people care, Tommy. And just from talking to you now, I can see that you deserve every one of those blessings and a whole lot more. Hi, listeners, so here's your update on that breaking news we learned just a few days ago on December 18th, 2020. There was a ruling in Tommy's case and it's what we've all been waiting for. The judge threw out Tommy's conviction. Not only that, the judge dismissed the charges against Tommy and ordered him to be released from prison.
This is a moment for celebration and joy. But believe it or not, Tommy's case still isn't settled. Prosecutors have obtained a temporary stay of Tommy's release while they prepare to appeal. So for now, Tommy Ward is still behind bars. Steve and I and the Center on Wrongful Convictions will be posting updates on Twitter. So follow us for the latest. Tommy Ward is now 60 years old. Will he finally be able to reclaim what's left of his life as an exonerated man?
We hope so, Tommy. We support you all the way. Your dream of freedom is our dream to. Wrongful conviction, False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good Podcast's in association with Signal Company No. One special thanks to our executive producers Jason Pflaum and Kevin Ortiz. Our production team is headed by senior producer Anne Pope, along with producers Josh Hammer and just Shane. Our show is mixed by Jeanie Montalvo. John Colbert is our intrepid intern.
Our music was composed by Jay Ralph. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter at Laura Nightrider and you can follow me on Twitter at S Drizzt. For more information on the show, visit wrongful conviction podcast dotcom. Be sure to follow the show on Instagram at wrongful conviction on Facebook, at Wrongful Conviction Podcast and on Twitter at Wrong Conviction. For NPR ex.