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Divergent theories outlined in latest round of Fairbanks Four murder case

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 5, 2015

FAIRBANKS -- William Holmes, 35, doing life without parole in California, has not been a free man since his arrest and conviction for a double murder in 2002.

Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, black glasses, handcuffs and legcuffs, the California convict testified in Fairbanks Superior Court on Monday, opening the latest chapter in one of the most controversial crimes in the history of Fairbanks.

About 40 people attended the opening session of what is expected to be a month-long hearing in which four men convicted of the 1997 murder of John Hartman are to argue that their guilty verdicts should be set aside and they should be declared innocent and set free.

The hearing is not a trial, but an evidentiary hearing, state prosecutors say. The attorneys for the Fairbanks Four -- Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease and George Frese -- counter that it is a non-jury trial at which they will present evidence that they say will prove the four didn't commit the crime.

Bill Oberly, an attorney with the Alaska Innocence Project, said the police "stopped investigating and started accusing" as soon as they set their sights on the four young men 18 years ago. The police obtained "two false confessions from two drunk teenagers. At trial they combined these false confessions with an impossible eyewitness identification that was obtained through improper police methods," he said.

"We will present evidence of the bad science, the bad confessions, the bad police work, the bad eyewitness identification, which undermines the whole of those original convictions," he said.

Attorneys for the four men face a difficult challenge in demonstrating that unanimous verdicts reached during three separate trials in Anchorage by 36 jurors should be rejected. Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman said the state will present evidence that augments the verdicts and recounted a long series of appeals and hearings that took place over the years, bringing up many points similar to those raised this time.

"Trial by jury is the bedrock of our system," she said. "When I say our system, I mean everybody in this courtroom. We have to rely on the 12 citizens picked at random to pore over the evidence and decide" whether there was convincing proof beyond a reasonable doubt that allowed them to act without hesitating.

"It existed for 36 people and it is not something which can be easily and blithely undone," she said.

While Bachman insisted that Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle is not in the position to serve as the "37th juror," in a sense he is being asked to do just that.

The case has prompted a continuing high level of public interest, in large measure because advocates for the Fairbanks Four have kept it alive. Supporters held a rally Monday at lunch outside the courthouse, saying the men should be set free. Three of the four men are Alaska Native and one is American Indian.

Roberts, released to a halfway house during the summer, attended the hearing in person, while Vent, Pease and Frese listened from the state jail. Friends and family raised $4,500 to help cover the cost of providing supervision for the men in court, so they may be present at the proceeding Wednesday.

The Fairbanks Four say that shortly after Hartman's beating, Fairbanks police stopped looking for other suspects and built a case against the men with unfair interrogation techniques, unreliable witnesses and scant evidence.

At the heart of the new arguments is the assertion that Holmes and another man -- also a convicted murderer -- are among those who should have been prosecuted and convicted for Hartman's killing.

A statement by Holmes, which he said he made because he was encouraged to come forward by a prison guard and because of "my relationship with God," has been described by advocates for the Fairbanks Four as a confession, but it is more accusation than confession, with a heavy dose of hearsay.

The prosecutor attempted to raise doubts about whether Holmes' epiphany was genuine, saying Holmes adopts a gangster-like persona with vulgar and graphic language about sex when communicating with a woman, but the judge cut off that line of questioning after one of the Fairbanks Four attorneys objected that it was not relevant.

The debate about what hearsay statements should be admitted began early Monday and is likely to continue as a central theme of the hearing.

Lyle allowed certain hearsay statements to be made without ruling on whether they would prove admissible in the end -- saying he would weigh the merits for a written decision at the end of the proceedings.

Holmes said that he drove the getaway car, but that he did not see or hear the beating that proved fatal to Hartman.

In a crowded courtroom, more than a dozen attorneys and legal assistants sat at three tables before Lyle, who cautioned members of the public twice during the day against using cell phones and other electronic devices or taking pictures.

Holmes, a onetime drug dealer who claimed that he had been making $10,000 to $20,000 a week, said he believes that a former criminal partner of his -- convicted murderer Jason Wallace -- beat Hartman to death in 1997.

Holmes said he drove the car that October night and that four fellow high school students jumped out of his car and went out to attack a person they saw on the street. He turned the car around and stayed put for seconds or minutes, he said.

"When I opened up the car door and kind of stood up, everybody came bolting back around the corner full speed, yelling 'go, go, go, go, go'," he said.

Holmes said that as he drove off, three of them kept saying that Wallace attacked the boy. Wallace didn't say anything, while the others said "Little J was tripping" and "he stomped him out," Holmes said.

But the next day, Wallace was "way more forthcoming," Holmes said.

"He told me that, he said, 'I went on one. I was just stomping an old boy out.' He told me that he still had blood on his shoes," Holmes testified.

"He just proceeded to kind of, I don't know, brag about it, tell me what happened."

On Tuesday, Lyle is to hold a closed-door session with Wallace, who declined to answer questions during a deposition, asserting his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

A sealed hearsay statement that was mistakenly sent to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in August asserted that Wallace made claims quoted by others that he was the one driving the car, while Holmes took part in the beating. The statement has yet to become part of the public record because of a dispute about statements protected by the attorney-client privilege.

Among the many questions at the forefront of this latest round of debate in the Fairbanks Four saga are whether Holmes is telling the truth about his involvement -- limited or not -- and if the past bad blood between Wallace and Holmes has anything to do with what they are saying or not saying now.

Since it was testimony by Wallace that helped seal Holmes's fate -- a double life sentence with no parole -- the state has argued that it made no sense that Holmes did not use what he knew about Wallace to try to get a more lenient sentence.

"The idea that this guy who betrayed you, you could tell on him this deep dark secret that you allege, did not occur to you?" Bachman asked Monday.

"No," Holmes said, adding that he thought he would be implicating himself if he said he knew anything.

"Even though you didn't do anything and you didn't see anything and all you did was drive a car?" she said.

"I thought driving a car when a murder took place was doing something," Holmes said.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints.

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