Crime & Courts

Attorney general rejects claims of stalling on Fairbanks Four case

FAIRBANKS -- The state of Alaska is continuing its efforts to expedite court proceedings regarding the four Fairbanks men convicted in the 1997 beating death of John Hartman, Attorney General Michael Geraghty said.

Geraghty, responding to a letter from Sen. Mark Begich that accused the state of creating unnecessary delays, said the senator is mistaken. He said state attorneys have met with lawyers for the four men to try to set a schedule for a hearing to move the case forward.

"I can assure you we will continue to press forward to find the truth," Geraghty said. "Sen. Begich's inferences to the contrary are unfounded.

While state prosecutors have rejected claims that the wrong men are imprisoned in the so-called "Fairbanks Four" controversy, they told the court last spring that the "community's need for resolution of this polarizing case" warrants a new hearing.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last week, Begich called for a federal review of the convictions, which have long been a point of contention in Fairbanks. A year ago in September, attorneys for the four men put forward a new explanation for Hartman's death, arguing that a man jailed for another murder was the main culprit.

William Z. Holmes, who is serving a double life sentence for murder in California, said that Jason Wallace, a convicted murderer who was once his criminal partner, administered a severe beating to Hartman. Wallace later testified against Holmes and received a 60-year sentence in a plea bargain.

Holmes said he did not see the Hartman beating take place, but he drove the getaway car, with Wallace and three others as passengers. They talked about what they had done, Holmes said.

In its response last spring, the state said the Innocence Project argument "amounts only to hearsay allegations that a third person, Jason Wallace, made incriminating statements about assaulting John Hartman." Attorneys for the four men responded that it is not hearsay, that Holmes was a co-conspirator and the statements would be admissible.

Time-consuming case

Begich wrote to Holder that "Alaskans have been dismayed that the state has requested delay after delay and attempted to keep information from being publicly disclosed."

Geraghty said Begich did not contact the department or him "to discuss the matter beforehand or learn the facts."

Geraghty said the state is waiting for a decision from the courts on whether certain documents filed by attorneys for the four men will be made public.

From the little that has been publicly disclosed or reported, the files have remained secret while Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle tries to resolve a dispute dealing with the attorney-client privilege and statements made by Wallace.

The sealed document may help corroborate the story told by Holmes, though its legal status remains uncertain.

In a court filing, the Innocence Project asserted that "the nature and specifics of the next statements made by Jason Wallace is the subject of the sealed motion filed with this application. Applicant contends these statements are no longer confidential and asks the court to so rule and make them part of this application."

State prosecutors have not been a party to court hearings or to the two dozen-plus motions and orders dealing with this secret file.

"This matter is not controlled by the Department of Law but by the court. The court has determined that the Department of Law is not permitted to attend any hearing about the Innocence Project's confidential filing," Geraghty said.

"The Department has no voice in that dispute and is not represented. Since that is the law, the department must wait for the court's rulings along with all other members of the public who cannot attend those hearings," Geraghty said.

He said he is not suggesting that anything taking place in the closed proceedings is inappropriate.

"To the contrary, the Department of Law respects and understands the need to fully and fairly address whatever issues have been generated around the Alaska Innocence Project's confidential filing," he said.

In a document filed last May, the state said the confidential document it has not seen "apparently pertains to Jason Wallace, the man accused of being the real assailant of John Hartman. Although the court predicted action on the confidential filing by now, the state is not aware of any final conclusion about the release (or not) of the confidential filing. Accordingly, the state simply cannot assume anything about the contents of that filing though there is undoubtedly substantial focus on that filing by others."

The state said a hearing would allow the state to present evidence 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 their trials in Anchorage.