The Innocent Man: Ada in national spotlight - - Texoma news, weather and sports

The Innocent Man: Ada in national spotlight

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Debbie Sue Carter was murdered in 1982. (KTEN) Debbie Sue Carter was murdered in 1982. (KTEN)
Christy Sheppard continues to seek justice for her slain cousin, Debbie Sue Carter. (KTEN) Christy Sheppard continues to seek justice for her slain cousin, Debbie Sue Carter. (KTEN)
Tommy Ward remains imprisoned for the 1984 murder of Denice Haraway. (Courtesy) Tommy Ward remains imprisoned for the 1984 murder of Denice Haraway. (Courtesy)

ADA, Okla. -- One national study contends that one in 25 inmates is wrongfully convicted.

On top of that, Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 1,079 of every 100,000 citizens behind bars.

Are these statistics connected? Is the system truly fair?

A six-part Netflix documentary about two infamous murder cases in Ada more than 30 years ago has morphed into a cry to fix Oklahoma's criminal justice system.

Author John Grisham's best-selling book "The Innocent Man" first raised those questions to a worldwide audience in 2006.  Now a Netflix true crime series by the same name is refocusing attention on what happened after Debbie Sue Carter was found murdered in December 1982.

"For whatever reason, I just decided, 'Oh, a law that will do it, that will fix it,'" said Carter's cousin, Christy Sheppard.

Sheppard was featured throughout the Netflix series, sharing how her family hated the men who were charged, convicted and sentenced to die for Carter's murder: Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz.

After spending 11 years on death row, the two men were exonerated based on DNA evidence

"We were shocked that the DNA didn't match," Sheppard said. "Everything vanishes, and then in the blink of an eye it's gone. Everything we knew or we thought we knew, it's just gone."

Williamson was only days away from being executed when his conviction was reversed, and the case became a spark for Sheppard to change the system.

"We are really trying to push for reforms and trying to change things in honor of Debbie and in her memory," she said.

Sheppard started questioning the death penalty itself: Was it really the right answer for crimes that still had questions?

Based on a 2017 study by the Death Penalty Information Center, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia and Florida account for more than half of all executions in the United states. That same study shows that opposition to the death penalty is at its highest level in four decades.

"If you are putting a man to death and there's a possibility he's innocent, that's murder, too. That's legalized murder," said  Melvin Ward, whose brother Tommy Ward was initially on Oklahoma death row after being convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing Denice Haraway in Ada in 1984. He was later retried and received a life sentence.

"Tommy said he's forgiven them. I don't," Melvin Ward said, adding that his brother claimed law enforcement had threatened him during his interview.

New questions being raised this month. Attorneys for Karl Fontenot, who is also serving a life sentence for Haraway's murder, are asking a federal judge to sanction the Oklahoma Attorney General's office, the Ada City Attorney and the Ada police chief after hundreds of pages of evidence were found in the Ada Police Department files.

KTEN reached out to the Ada Police Department and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, who declined the opportunity to comment..

"It's sad the way the system is set up once you have been convicted by your peers," Melvin Ward said.

Andrea Miller, a clinical professor for the Oklahoma Innocence Project, says Tommy Ward's case is not uncommon, but is not easy to reverse.

"Since the system puts an emphasis on finality, it's very difficult at any stage to undo a conviction... especially when it follows a jury trial, because a jury decision is considered 'sacred,'" Miller said.

But Ward said the attention from "The Innocent Man" is making a difference.

"Since this series came out, more and more people have been in support of Tommy -- not just in Ada, but all over the world," he said.

Christi Sheppard is currently working with Oklahoma lawmakers, pushing for reforms such as eyewitness identifications -- with a goal of improving the system.

"I think that's the most important thing, at least for me," she said. "As tragic as it was for my family, this is not the exception; this is very much the rule."

Tommy Ward's post-conviction filing will be reviewed by a judge later this year..

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