The center of the legal effort to exonerate the men known as the Fairbanks Four rests on the claim that two of the "real killers" of young John Hartman have confessed.
One of the men is William Holmes, 35, a former drug dealer now serving a double life sentence in California for murder. The other man is Jason Wallace, 34, serving 70 years in the Spring Creek jail for killing a 25-year-old woman with a hammer, and other crimes.
As teenagers in Fairbanks, they were friends. As young men in their early 20s, they committed murder. It was part of a scheme to eliminate rivals and gain more control over the cocaine trade. Wallace later become the star witness against Holmes, so they don't have much good to say about each other.
Both men are locked up and neither one is on trial in the landmark court proceeding, about to enter its fifth week in Fairbanks, where their conflicting stories may help decide the legal fate of Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Eugene Vent and Kevin Pease.
Had either one actually come forward to say, "I did it," on the record, the Fairbanks Four would be free men today. But they haven't done that, which is one of many reasons why the task facing Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle is far from clear-cut. Holmes and Wallace have credibility problems.
Holmes has said he was just a driver and his passengers killed John Hartman in 1997, the crime for which the Fairbanks Four have spent half their lives in jail.
Wallace has admitted nothing on the record, but Holmes says Wallace bragged about the killing not long after it happened and threatened to kill anyone who didn't keep quiet. Former Lathrop students and a former public defender investigator have also said they heard Wallace implicate himself, but what legal weight those statements will carry is not known.
The court hearing has unfolded like a retrial of the three Anchorage trials that led to the convictions of the Fairbanks Four, but there is a second track as well, a test of whether there is enough evidence to conclude that Wallace beat Hartman to death. Establish that story as real and it would show the Fairbanks Four were wrongly convicted, but deciding what can be trusted about Holmes and Wallace requires a leap of faith.
There is no jury to sway, just the judge, who has said that part of his job after the hearing will be to decide which of the many hearsay statements brought up by witnesses in testimony can be justified as evidence. Court rules and precedents, not just believable stories, will decide this case.
Since early October, Lyle has presided at court sessions in which the events in Fairbanks from that October weekend have been played and replayed by witnesses who have been by turns both fuzzy on details or razor-sharp. The names of Fairbanks institutions and businesses that no longer exist come up in the testimony like a snapshot in time -- Mapco, Lamonts, Kmart, Club Graffiti -- reflecting the passage of years every bit as much as the frequent discussion about the use of pagers and pay phones.
The "real killers" theory is complicated by the circumstances surrounding the statements portrayed as confessions and the reasons the two men might have to lie about each other. While they were once partners in a murder conspiracy that left three dead, Wallace played a key role in netting Holmes a double-life sentence for murder.
Holmes said Wallace "lied about some things" during that trial, but that he isn't really upset anymore about Wallace, which is hard to believe. He also said his conscience led him to come forward and identify Wallace as the main killer. Had Holmes confessed to doing more than driving the car, his statement would be more persuasive.
The court testimony of the two breaks down this way:
Holmes claims he drove the car and that Wallace did the killing, which Holmes did not see or hear. He said Wallace later bragged about the killing. Testifying under a grant of immunity, Wallace claims to know nothing at all about the case, though other witnesses said they heard him admit his involvement.
Holmes and Wallace ended up in Fairbanks as teenagers because each had a parent in the Army, stationed at Fort Wainwright. They attended Lathrop High School, played basketball and hung out.
Five years after the Hartman killing, they hatched the murder plot aimed at helping Holmes gain a bigger share of the drug trade. At one point, according to Holmes, he was pocketing $10,000 to $20,000 a week.
After Holmes killed two rivals in the Lower 48, he sent the number "187" to Wallace's pager. That was the signal that Wallace was to commit the killings he had agreed to commit in Fairbanks. Wallace killed one person, tried to kill a second and was arrested at the airport.
Why Holmes didn't speak up years ago and use damaging information against Wallace in exchange for any kind of break with the prosecutors in California is one part of his credibility problem. Another is that he says the chief culprit is the man who did more than anyone else to make him a prisoner for life.
On Wallace's part, the credibility questions start with why he refused to testify unless he was granted immunity. If he had no knowledge of the attack and no involvement, he could have spoken freely without immunity.
He did use what he knew about Holmes years ago to his advantage and attorneys for the Fairbanks Four say that appears to be what he is doing again. That would not be surprising.
Unlike Holmes, Wallace stands a chance at getting out of prison. Maybe he thinks that assisting the state in this way could work in his favor when he comes up for parole. Conversely, an admission of his involvement, even with immunity, might reduce the odds that he will ever go free.
Wallace first appeared in the Fairbanks Four proceedings via a recorded deposition at which he wore prison yellow, reflecting his status as a prisoner at Spring Creek.
On Friday, he made an appearance in person in Fairbanks court, looking dapper in a gray suit, light purple shirt and bright checked bow tie. But it was not just his clothes that had changed.
In his deposition, he repeatedly asserted his Fifth Amendment rights to not answer questions about the killing of Hartman. In mid-October, Attorney General Craig Richards offered him immunity in exchange for his testimony
"The hearing poses serious questions about John Hartman's murder," Richards wrote Oct. 14 to Lyle. "I believe it is important for you to hear any- and everything that Mr. Wallace may have to say about this matter to reach a just resolution."
Richards said, "Wallace will not be prosecuted for any matter about which he is required to testify by giving responsive answers to questions asked during court proceedings related to this case."
Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman repeatedly told Wallace that he had nothing to lose by telling the truth but could face perjury charges if he lied. It is important to be honest, she said.
Wallace said he understood all that.
He went on to deny knowing anything about the Hartman killing or many of the people who have linked him to the case.
"I'm sure a lot of people know of me but they don't know me," he said. His statement that he doesn't recall all sorts of people in his past whose names have come up in this hearing is hard to believe.
Asked if he was denying that he told other people anything about the assault, he said, "Yes, I adamantly deny it," speaking in the same flat voice in which he responded to most of the questions.
He said he had never heard of the case until two years ago, when his name surfaced in the petition for a new review of the Fairbanks Four. When Bachman asked how it was possible that he hadn't heard of the case in 1997, he said he "didn't keep up with stuff like that."
Neither of these men has a track record that justifies putting much faith in their declarations, which is not going to be lost on the judge. Believability, or the lack of it, makes his job -- and the attempt to get at the truth -- all the more difficult.
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