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State rejects Fairbanks Four's claims of innocence but supports new hearing

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- State prosecutors rejected claims that the wrong men are imprisoned for the 1997 beating death of 15-year-old John Hartman but agreed that a new hearing on their innocence claims is warranted, in part because of the "community's need for resolution of this polarizing case."

A hearing would allow the state to present testimony that may do more to support the convictions of Kevin Pease, George Frese, Eugene Vent and Marvin Roberts than undermine confidence in verdicts reached 15 years ago at trials held in Anchorage, the attorney general's office said in a court filing Thursday in Fairbanks Superior Court.

The innocence claims on behalf of the men known as the "Fairbanks Four" are based on affidavits by two men the state says are not credible -- convicted murderer William Holmes and a second man convicted of multiple crimes, Scott Davison.

In court filings last fall, the Alaska Innocence Project offered statements from Holmes and Davison blaming Jason Wallace and others for the killing.

The state response Thursday, by assistant attorney general Adrienne Bachman, said that just as Holmes and Davison allege that Wallace made admissions about attacking Hartman, the four men convicted of the crime made similar statements years ago.

At one point, Vent apologized to Hartman's older brother, the prosecutor wrote.

"That brother wants the right people held accountable for John's senseless death and these defendants freed if they did not kill him," Bachman wrote. "However, Eugene Vent's words still echo in his mind, 'I'm so sorry. We didn't mean to kill him.'"

Bachman said that "additional witnesses" could testify that "they also heard similar proclamations from the defendants."

In explaining the state's contradictory position -- that post-conviction relief is not warranted based on inadmissible hearsay evidence, yet legal proceedings regarding the new claims should proceed to resolve a polarizing issue -- Bachman said there is an "obvious tension" between those two positions.

It will be up to the four defendants to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that "they are factually innocent of John Hartman's murder," she said in a 23-page filing.

"The state is fully aware of the seeming need for the Fairbanks community to have this court hear the evidence and make a determination about the credibility of the affiants," Bachman said in a footnote.

She said the state continues to investigate the claims made by Holmes and Davison regarding Wallace but is hampered by not knowing the details of a confidential filing from the Innocence Project that deals with Wallace and is now under review by the court.

Bachman also said the challenge of corroborating the statements by Holmes and Davison about Wallace has proven to be difficult. She said Davison has given conflicting accounts, and neither man saw what happened.

Much of the evidence gathered so far does not back up Holmes' version of events.

Some witnesses have declined to talk, while others have offered their views and some have made statements supporting the convictions of Pease, Frese, Vent and Roberts.

She said what the Innocence Project has put forward "amounts only to hearsay allegations that a third person, Jason Wallace, made incriminating statements about assaulting John Hartman."

In his statement, Holmes, who is serving a double life sentence for murder, said Wallace and others attacked Hartman outside of Holmes' car.

"He did not hear the assault, he did not see the assault and he did not participate in the assault. At best, he reports that 'according to the other participants,' Jason Wallace assaulted someone while they were briefly out of Holmes' car," the state said.

Bachman said a review of the transcripts of the trials demonstrated that the men received fair trials and that numerous court decisions on evidence went in their favor.

If the state can admit evidence that was excluded and evidence that was uncovered later, the "state submits that the weight of the evidence provides even greater support for the verdicts rendered by three juries."

"Previously suppressed evidence should no longer be suppressed for purposes of this litigation," she said in a footnote.

Regarding Holmes, she said that his motives "may be front and center in the present controversy."

Holmes is imprisoned for two murders in 2002 in Shasta County, Calif.

"A central witness to Holmes' convictions was Jason Wallace, the man Holmes now accuses of being the real killer of John Hartman. Indeed, William Holmes, himself, described Wallace as the 'critical' witness against Holmes."

Wallace confessed to a 2002 murder in Ester, and provided the authorities with key information about "Holmes' entire plot to take over the drug trade" in Fairbanks.

Holmes is serving a double life sentence for the California killings, and he did not use what would have been powerful information implicating Wallace in the Hartman case in exchange for a reduced sentence.

"The reasonable conclusion from Holmes' failure to disclose is that there was actually nothing to report. That failure undermines Holmes' credibility when he makes his current allegations," the state filing said.

Prosecutors say that Davison, who "began his life of crime in July 1998" by slashing the face of a senior citizen and stealing her purse, has credibility problems as well.

He also could have used information about Jason Wallace to his advantage in getting a reduced sentence, but he did not.

"As he did with his next felony and misdemeanor convictions, he remained silent," the state said.

The filings by the Innocence Project also questioned testimony at the trials regarding the distance at which people can be identified and shoe impressions left on Hartman's face.

Those claims should be dismissed because state law puts a time limit on such challenges and the evidence would not meet a legal requirement that the information would have to clearly establish innocence, the state argued.

Reach Dermot Cole at dermot@alaskadispatch.com.


By DERMOT COLE
dermot@alaskadispatch.com