I’ve been reluctant to share this around. I’m not thrilled with the audio. It’s high-trebled and tinny, and I’m a bashful mumbler in person to begin with. But it goes a long way toward showing why I’m passionate about cannabis reform in my beloved home state of Oklahoma. Fairness matters. Happy Fourth, y’all. My old man didn’t get his ass shot off for nothing. -G.W. Schulz
The Truth About True Crime
We’re consuming more of it than ever before. Is it teaching us anything new about justice?
By G.W. Schulz
Karl Allen Fontenot was born on Aug. 10, 1964, in Ada, Oklahoma. For more than 35 of his 56 years on earth, he’s been better-known as Oklahoma Department of Corrections inmate #148909. The state of Oklahoma convicted Fontenot in 1985 of raping and killing a young woman named Donna Haraway.
Police interrogated Fontenot upon his arrest in 1984 for nearly two hours. Then they switched on a video recorder. The investigators urged Fontenot on as he confessed to abducting Haraway with two other men.
In this videotaped portion of Fontenot’s interrogation, he confessed that the three men first drove Haraway to an abandoned house. There, they raped and murdered her before burning her body.
I’ll tell you more about Fontenot in a moment. Let me step back.
When each of us is presented with any type of media or communication, our minds take cognitive shortcuts or leaps in judgment-making, so we can decide how to react. These are sometimes called biases.
As communicators reliant on storytelling to share ideas, we frame people like Karl Fontenot not as proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. We frame him as a character in a story. Each character in any story has a role to play -- the hero, the victim, the perpetrator.
Karl has been each of these characters for us now. First he was the villain-defendant during the 1980s in local TV and newspaper media. Over time, his case was extensively documented across three books, a Netflix series, and true-crime podcast episodes. What he hasn’t been is treated fairly by our democratic institutions.
In order for there to be a crusader of justice in popular entertainment, there must be a corresponding villain in order for us to perceive law enforcement as inherently good.
News reporters are responsible for considering the perspective of everyone across the spectrum of a given story. Yet we rely on storytelling shortcuts everyday -- suspense, conflict, drama -- to convey important information to our audiences.
We do this all while trying our best not to frame people like Karl Fontenot as the “good guy” or “bad guy.” Much of the time, journalists fail miserably at this task.
You may have heard the expression “Perception is everything.” It is. We must seek to become more intelligent consumers of media and messages by understanding how framing and media biases cloud our perceptions.
When Karl Fontenot was sentenced to death in 1985, Oklahoma authorities had not found the body of Donna Haraway. There was no physical evidence at all, in fact, linking Fontenot to her killing.
No one could say for certain when he was convicted that Haraway had been murdered in the first place. Juries in Oklahoma nonetheless determined on two occasions that Fontenot was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of taking Haraway’s life.
I wanted to know more, so I studied Fontenot’s case. He hardly had a chance to develop emotionally between a horrific upbringing in Ada and decades in prison. His youth reportedly included witnessing his alcoholic and abusive father have sex with animals in front of the children. His mother was run over and killed by a car as she crossed a highway on foot to meet him.
He roamed the streets of Ada with no real home or family until his arrest in 1984. For years, he received virtually no visitors other than legal representatives.
Much of the remainder of his life has been spent in the most unforgiving of Oklahoma’s correctional institutions. Fontenot’s story has been told many times now in popular culture. But it remains a story that’s full meaning has escaped us all along.
There’s nothing sinister about our love of true-crime entertainment. In fact, we’re hard-wired to love it. But it’s critical to know how we perceive characters in a story when their lives are at stake. We can do this and still love true crime, drink wine, and be in bed by nine.
Part of what attracted me so much to Karl Fontenot is that from a distance, he didn’t seem to cleanly fit into the cultural framework we’ve assembled for ourselves of wrongfully convicted people.
Despite the books and podcasts and Netflix series, it remained difficult to tell if he was a victim or villain. Fontenot didn’t easily meet our needs as storytellers. But he did tell an important story about fairness.
For criminal justice to work in the United States and here in Oklahoma, whether Karl Fontenot neatly fits as a character in his own drama doesn’t matter if so many people now question his conviction. That list of critics includes a federal judge in his case.
Fontenot was twice sentenced to death before being resentenced to life in prison. The Oklahoma Innocence Project took up Fontenot’s case when the law clinic was first formed at Oklahoma City University in 2011. By 2019, Oklahoma police and prosecutors had admitted that they never found any evidence to corroborate what Fontenot had described in his confession.
In fact, newly discovered evidence that was previously withheld from Fontenot by Oklahoma law enforcement contradicts his own confession. According to the federal judge, this new evidence provides “solid proof of Mr. Fontenot’s probable innocence.”
In the judge’s nearly 200-page ruling, one statement reaches to the heart of Karl’s case: “No rational juror who was able to set aside the tragedy of Mrs. Haraway’s death could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Fontenot should be convicted by his own words.”
That extraordinary statement only occurred after Karl had exhausted his appeals in Oklahoma.
I’m not trying to dissuade you today from consuming true-crime entertainment. We rely upon storytelling and loosely shared understandings to simplify and act upon media messages and events in our lives.
But the courts we also share are not responsible for assigning TV roles to each of us. They’re responsible for ensuring that each of us is granted fairness, due process, and equal protection under the law.
Fontenot was released in December of 2019 after being declared innocent of the crimes for which he was accused almost 40 years ago now. But his time on the outside could be short-lived. Even now, he has never been exonerated by the state of Oklahoma.
[Edit: Former] Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has appealed the federal judge’s ruling and maintains that Fontenot is guilty and not entitled to a new trial. He must return to an Oklahoma courtroom and could wind up in prison all over again, perhaps for the rest of his life.
So while the Netflix series and the books and the podcast episodes are over now for us, Karl Fontenot’s horror story never ends for him.
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