An Alaska inmate is asking a state court to keep from being admitted as evidence a file containing comments he may have made to a public defender that he was involved in the October 12, 1997 beating death of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman.
The Alaska Innocence Project says the file could lead to the exoneration of four Native men – George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent – now in prison for Hartman’s death.
Jason Wallace is believed to have commented about Hartman’s death during an interview with his public defender in a 2002 drug-related murder-arson. Wallace was convicted of that murder and is now serving 75 years in an Alaska prison.
Jason Gazewood, Wallace’s court-appointed attorney, is fighting to keep the information sealed, saying any statement Wallace made to his public defender is protected by attorney-client privilege. But the Alaska Innocence Project says the file corroborates a signed statement it received in 2012 from William Z. Holmes, a one-time high school friend of Wallace’s now serving life for a California double-murder that had ties to Wallace’s murder case.
In the statement, Holmes detailed how he and four high school friends, among them Wallace, were driving around Fairbanks that night, looking for “drunk Natives” to harass. Wallace wrote that they’d throw eggs at them, or get out of the car, punch them, then drive off.
Holmes wrote that, while stopped at an intersection, they saw “a white boy walking alone.” He pulled his car over, his friends ran to the boy and knocked him down and robbed him. Holmes wrote that when his friends got back into the car, they said Wallace had repeatedly stomped on the boy’s head. Holmes wrote that the next school day, Wallace showed him a newspaper with an article about a boy that died from injuries sustained from a beating on that street corner. Holmes wrote that he told the friends “to tell no one about that night” and to “act like that night never happened.”
The Fairbanks News-Miner reported on January 24 that a former chief investigator for the Alaska Public Defender Agency leaked information about Wallace’s file to the Alaska Innocence Project.
The Alaska Court of Appeals on March 9 granted the Superior Court’s request for additional time to respond to Gazewood’s petition that Wallace’s 2002 file be sealed.
Meanwhile, the Superior Court scheduled an evidentiary hearing in the Fairbanks Four case for October 5-12 in Courtroom 401 in the Fairbanks Courthouse. According to Bill Oberly, attorney for the so-called Fairbanks Four: “We are asking for a new trial at those hearings and if we prevail the judge will order one. If we prevail in the October hearings, we can then ask for bail.”
Bail would be good news for Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent. In their early 20s at the time of their convictions in 1999. The men are now 38, 36, 37, and 35, respectively.
By the time of the hearings, Roberts, whose sentence ends on April 26, 2020, will have been paroled to a halfway house and could be released three months later for good behavior. Vent, whose scheduled release date is February 9, 2023, is scheduled to be paroled in August 2019.
According to a state database, Frese is scheduled to be released on June 12, 2050. Pease is scheduled to be released on June 13, 2042.
The four have contended since trial that they are innocent and Oberly’s Alaska Innocence Project and the Tanana Chiefs Conference have been working for their release.
Supporters say Holmes’ written statement and Wallace’s file prove what they believed all along: That there was a rush to judgment speeded by racial bias. Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent were convicted in separate trials, despite the testimony of alibi witnesses and lack of DNA evidence and other physical evidence linking them to the crime.
The convictions rested on two confessions, later recanted, that were obtained by police using a controversial interrogation method; and on testimony from a witness who identified the four men as being involved in another robbery that evening, although the witness had been drinking and he saw the robbery from 550 feet away in the dark. He recanted, but later said he stood by his testimony.
On September 25, 2013, based on Holmes’ statement, the Alaska Innocence Project asked the court for a new trial for Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent. Among those calling for an outside review of the case at the time: Sen. Mark Begich, Fairbanks Mayor John Eberhart, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and the Alaska Federation of Natives. The court ordered the state attorney general’s office to review the case.
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On February 27, 2014, the Alaska Innocence Project learned that six months before it obtained Holmes’ statement, a California corrections officer in whom Holmes had confided passed information about their conversation on to the Fairbanks Police Department, but police didn’t look into it. Laren Zager, the police chief at the time, told reporters that the information wasn’t regarded as cause for a new investigation.
In May 2014, special prosecutor Adrienne Bachman reported in her review that a hearing should be held on the four’s claims of innocence, but she discounted Holmes’ statement, saying it was based on hearsay – others in the car said Wallace assaulted Hartman, but Holmes didn’t see the assault, she wrote.
In addition, “A central witness to Holmes' [murder] convictions was Jason Wallace, the man Holmes now accuses of being the real killer of John Hartman,” implying that Holmes has motivation for stating that Wallace was responsible for Hartman’s death.
But Joseph Torquato, the corrections officer in whom Holmes confided about Hartman’s death, told investigators Holmes initially didn’t want to come forward with the information. “But he was supposed to be a Christian,” Torquato told investigators. “So I told him, if you’re a Christian, don’t ruin your own testimony, right? You gotta come forward.”