A potentially key piece of evidence in the Fairbanks Four case is the subject of an evidentiary hearing scheduled November 10, 9 a.m. in Courtroom 401 in the Fairbanks Courthouse.
Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle is expected to decide whether the information should remain confidential or admitted as evidence. Attorney Bill Oberly of the Alaska Innocence Project, which represents the Fairbanks Four, would not comment on the evidence, saying he is “constrained in talking about that information” in the event Lyle determines the information is to remain confidential.
But in previous stories, the Alaska Innocence Project has stated it has information that a Fairbanks man, Jason Wallace, told his public defender in a 2002 murder case that he was involved in the beating death of teenager John Hartman in 1997. Oberly has said the information corroborates a written statement obtained in 2012 from William Holmes, a former Fairbanks man now serving life in a California prison for murder, that he, Wallace and others were involved in the fatal beating death of Hartman.
The Superior Court appointed an attorney for Wallace, now serving life for the 2002 murder; the attorney, Jason Gazewood, wants the information kept sealed, saying the information in it is protected by attorney-client privilege.
Meanwhile, four Native men from Fairbanks – George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, and Eugene Vent – are serving sentences ranging from 33 to 64 years for Hartman’s death.
Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent were convicted in separate trials of Hartman’s murder, despite the testimony of alibi witnesses and lack of DNA evidence and other physical evidence linking them to the crime.
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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.
Similar crimes had occurred that evening, but no other suspects were sought or questioned.
On September 25, 2013, based on the Holmes confession, the Alaska Innocence Project asked the court to vacate the convictions of Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent, aka a request for a new trial. On October 8, 2013, the Alaska attorney general’s office agreed to review the case. On November 8, 2013, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, asked Gov. Sean Parnell to ensure that the case would be thoroughly and swiftly reviewed.
To Begich and others who believe a new trial is warranted, review of the case has been anything but swift and thorough.
On December 5, 2013, the court granted Assistant Attorney General Adrienne Bachman’s request for an extension beyond the 45 days allowed by law for her review.
On January 17, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that Judge Lyle cited potential impacts on reputations as a reason for careful handling of the request to make Wallace’s statements to his public defender part of the record.
On February 27, the Alaska Innocence Project learned that six months before it obtained Holmes’ sworn confession, a California corrections officer in whom Holmes had confided passed information about their conversation on to the Fairbanks Police Department, but Fairbanks police didn’t look into it. Police Chief Laren Zager told reporters in Fairbanks that the information wasn’t regarded as cause for a new investigation.
On May 15, Bachman filed a 23-page review. The review states the defendants’ claims of innocence “are based on likely inadmissible evidence;” Wallace’s sworn statement that his friend inflicted the fatal injuries is based on hearsay; a potentially corroborating statement is from another witness who is not credible; and proposed updated testimony from two expert witnesses that testified in the 1998 trial “does not qualify as newly discovered evidence” under the law.
In the ensuing five months, attorneys on both sides have filed various pleadings and requests. On August 12, the state and the Alaska Innocence Project filed a motion asking the court to schedule discovery, when the state and defense can depose witnesses and request information of each other in preparation for a hearing. On that day, the court scheduled the evidentiary hearing for November 10. Discovery has not been scheduled as of this writing.
On October 8, Begich joined the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Tanana Chiefs Conference in asking the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to review the Fairbanks Four case. Begich cited unresolved allegations of “prosecutorial misconduct and coercion, along with evidence uncovered in recent years that includes a confession to the crime by a different individual.”
In a news release on his website, Begich said, “It is time for a thorough review of the circumstances of this case by an impartial authority. The State has requested delay after delay of its review and has attempted to keep information from being publicly disclosed. I agree with the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Tanana Chiefs Conference that this case requires federal review, and that is why I’ve made the formal request of the DOJ. We must be certain that those who are guilty of the brutal murder of John Hartman in 1997 have been brought to justice.”
The Fairbanks Four case could be an issue at a Q&A for Alaska gubernatorial candidates on October 24, 2:30-3:30 p.m., at the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention. The candidates for governor are incumbent Sean Parnell, Republican, and former Valdez mayor Bill Walker, Independent.
A forum for candidates for lieutenant governor is also scheduled that day. Parnell’s running mate is Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan. Walker’s running mate is former Juneau mayor Byron Mallott, Tlingit, who also led the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Alaska Permanent Fund.
April Monroe, who manages the advocacy site TheFairbanksFour.com, said she hopes Parnell and Walker will be asked if they would consider a pardon for the four men in light of the evidence that has been presented. Erin Fogg, a consultant for Alaska Federation of Natives, said October 11 that the questions hadn’t yet been formalized.
The next steps in the case:
“After discovery is complete, we will schedule a hearing. In this case, it will be more like a mini-trial,” Oberly said in a previous interview. “We will put on witnesses that support our claim that the Fairbanks Four are innocent, and the state will put on evidence to support the original convictions. After this hearing, the court will make its decision. That decision will be to order a new trial if we have proven by clear and convincing evidence that the Four are innocent. If the judge orders a new trial, all four will be able to ask for bail.”
Bail would be welcome relief for the four, who were 20, 19 and 17 when they were arrested. Frese is now 37 and a grandfather. Roberts turns 37 and Vent turns 35 in November. Pease is 36.
“They are careful [in their optimism],” Oberly said. “They’ve been in prison for a long time. They feel like the system let them down. They are innocent and in prison, so they are careful about their expectations.”
Yupiit Nation Chief Mike Williams Sr., a council member in the Akiak Native Community and member of the executive committee of the National Congress of American Indians, said, “How can we keep innocent people in jail, ruining the future of their lives? It’s unreal that even when a person comes out and writes an admission and that doesn’t even begin to become considered. I’m appalled by the closed-mindedness and no heart of the State of Alaska.”