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Court hearing will test claims of 'real killers' in Fairbanks Four case

  • Author: Dermot Cole
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 16, 2015

On an October night in 1997, a 15-year-old boy was knocked to the ground near downtown Fairbanks and repeatedly kicked in the head. He was left for dead on a quiet street, not far from the city center.

The four young men, ages 17 to 21, later arrested and convicted of the killing of John Hartman have now spent half of their lives in prison, but questions about whether justice was served in the case continue to haunt Fairbanks.

Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent are now in their mid- to late-30s, with varying amounts of time yet to serve. Earlier this summer Roberts gained a measure of freedom with his release to a Fairbanks halfway house.

The "Fairbanks Four," as they have come to be called, are at the center of a contentious dispute with no parallel in the community's history.

There are those who believe the Native men were wrongly convicted, that racism had a lot to do with it and white men would have never been convicted in similar circumstances. Protests and marches have become commonplace. Others argue the men had good attorneys, that 36 jurors in three separate trials in Anchorage heard the evidence and rendered unanimous verdicts that have withstood multiple appeals over the years.

The justice system keeps wrestling with the Hartman killing because supporters of the four men have kept the case alive, trying to poke holes in the evidence and show why they believe there is more than reasonable doubt.

The culmination of that long campaign may occur this fall when advocates for the four men plan to argue in a three-week proceeding that an alternative explanation of the brutal crime should be convincing enough for a judge to declare the four men innocent, an interpretation rejected by the state.

The state has produced thousands of pages of discovery documents and each side has named about five dozen potential witnesses. It's not clear yet if the long-awaited hearing will be delayed, as a crucial document remains sealed and the Alaska Supreme Court is considering whether its contents should be disclosed.

The theory that others are the real killers hinges largely on the actions and statements of two convicted murderers, both facing decades of imprisonment for other crimes and on private comments leaked by an Alaska Public Defender Agency investigator to attorneys for the Fairbanks Four.

Much of the evidence takes the form of hearsay and direct first-person testimony is lacking. The theory offered as an alternative is plausible, but it is hardly an open-and-shut case, based on what has been revealed thus far.

William Holmes, who is serving a double life sentence in California for gunning down two people, says he drove the car that night, but he did not hit Hartman or even see the attack. He said he and four passengers went out that night, cruising the streets, looking for "drunk Natives" to harass. He said the four got out to administer a beating to a "white boy" they saw on the street, while Holmes turned the car around.

When the passengers ran back to the car, three of them yelled that the fourth -- fellow Lathrop High School student Jason Wallace -- stomped on Hartman's body, Holmes said. He said Wallace refused to talk about it.

The seven lawyers for the Fairbanks Four refer to the statement by Holmes as a confession, while the state prosecutor says the convicted murderer was not confessing anything, but simply stating he drove the car and did not see the assault, hear the assault or plan the assault. His statement about Wallace is inadmissible hearsay, the state contends.

In the years after the Hartman killing, Wallace and Holmes continued as partners in crime, but Wallace eventually testified against Holmes regarding a plan to take over the drug trade in Fairbanks. Wallace was a key witness in putting Holmes behind bars for life.

Credibility is a key issue, particularly given the criminal background of Holmes and Wallace. Holmes is locked up at the Ironwood State Prison in California, while Wallace is serving a 60-year sentence in Seward for killing a woman with a hammer.

Defense attorneys presented the outline of this alternative argument two years ago, but a complicated fight over claims of attorney-client privilege has been difficult to untangle. It deals with private statements that allegedly incriminate Wallace and bolster the efforts to clear the Fairbanks Four. The Alaska Supreme Court is to decide if the statements are proper legal fodder.

Here's what happened, according to court filings:

An investigator for the Alaska Public Defender Agency claimed to have heard Wallace say things that will back up the story told by Holmes, which would give credence to the claim that Wallace took part in the beating. An attorney for Wallace has objected to the disclosure of these statements, citing the attorney-client privilege and the need to protect statements made in confidence to lawyers.

No doubt Wallace hopes to get out of prison some day and any public disclosure along these lines would make that less likely, even though the courts have said the improperly released statements could not be used against him.

According to the Alaska Innocence Project, an investigator for the Alaska Public Defender Agency in Fairbanks allegedly heard Wallace make incriminating statements about himself regarding the Hartman case. The Innocence Project is a nonprofit corporation that helps those who may have been wrongfully convicted. In this case, it represents Roberts and Pease.

The Alaska Public Defender Agency investigator who heard the statements had previously worked on behalf of Roberts and Pease. The investigator relayed Wallace's statements to a second investigator, who had done work for the public defender office in Anchorage, the Innocence Project says.

This second investigator later helped organize the Alaska Innocence Project, sat on its first board of directors, and began to work on the effort to free the Fairbanks Four. In at least one of three conversations between the two investigators, the first investigator passed along key information to the second.

"They each contend that the other was the one who communicated J.W.'s statements to the Innocence Project," a court filing says, the initials referring to Jason Wallace. The Innocence Project says that "one or the other or both of them chose to reveal" the information. The Court of Appeals said the second investigator revealed the information.

The statement by Wallace was a privileged communication that should not have been released, the lower courts have ruled. But the information has been disclosed to other attorneys and it may be used in a case in which Wallace is not involved, the Alaska Court of Appeals said in a July 31 ruling, confirming a decision by Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle. The statement cannot be used against Wallace, the courts have said.

But a major question remains. The rules against the use of hearsay in court may prevent the use of some or all of this information in the upcoming hearing. The appeals court said it offered no opinion on how the hearsay rules would apply.

The relationship between Wallace and Holmes is central to the upcoming court proceeding. The circumstances that prompted Holmes to provide a statement are in dispute, along with many other aspects of the case. The state says that Holmes may have a powerful motive for targeting Wallace because Wallace had been the critical witness against Holmes. The supporters of the Fairbanks Four counter that Holmes passed a lie detector test.

The state and the defense attorneys representing the Fairbanks Four even disagree on what to call the upcoming proceedings.

The defense attorneys call it a nonjury trial after which the judge could declare the four men innocent and order their immediate release. The state says it is a hearing at which evidence will be presented to determine whether new trials are warranted. The court has no legal authority to convert the hearing to a trial, the state contends.

"Calling the October hearing a 'trial' suggests that the state has to prove the defendants' guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It already did that in 1999, in three separate jury trials. Those verdicts stand and there is no basis in law to suggest that another 'trial' is happening in October," the state said in a recent filing.

Call it a hearing or a trial, a lot is riding on the next stage in this case, a chance to show whether the new evidence calls the original verdicts into question or confirms the legal process that began after that brutal beating nearly 18 years ago.

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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