State responds in Fairbanks Four case
Originally posted: May 16, 2014
With charges of racism and corruption in the backdrop, the story of the “Fairbanks Four” sounds like a fodder for a Hollywood movie. But the script is still being written.
Four Alaska Native men — Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, George Frese and Kevin Pease — have been fighting for their freedom ever since they were convicted of murdering John Hartman, a Fairbanks teenager, who was beaten to death in 1997.
It looks like the fight to free the Fairbanks Four is far from over.
After an eight-month review of the case, the state filed its response Thursday to a motion seeking to overturn the conviction.
The post-conviction relief filing was brought forward by a group called the Alaska Innocence Project, which presented new evidence in the case, including a California inmate’s claims that he and four others are to blame for Hartman’s death – not the Fairbanks Four.
The state said the evidence wasn’t strong enough to overturn the conviction, because it was hearsay and would likely be inadmissible.
The AIP already had a handwritten confession from the inmate, William Holmes, who is serving time for two murders in the Calipatria State Prison.
In the AIP’s investigation, a number of leads pointed to Holmes. Roberts, one of the men convicted in Hartman’s murder, wrote to Holmes and made a personal plea asking him to tell the truth. Holmes responded with a letter to the Alaska Innocence Project admitting his involvement in the beating death. But what the AIP didn’t know until this February was that the Fairbanks Police Department had known about Holmes’ potential involvement in the case for more than two years.
In December 2011, the department received a memo from Joseph Torquato, a correctional officer at Holmes’ prison, detailing what Holmes had told him about the Hartman murder.
Holmes, who was a high school student in Fairbanks at the time of the Hartman killing, told Torquato he and four other students were responsible for the death of the 15-year-old.
In the memo, Torquano wrote:
“Inmate Holmes told me how, (one) night, he was driving four other guys around Downtown Fairbanks looking for some drunken Native to attack, and, as they were going to leave the area, they drove over to Barnette Street, where they saw a white man walking across the street acting like he was drunk. Holmes claims to have made a U-turn and dropped off the four guys that were in the car with him to attack the guy.”
Torquato said Holmes told him that he went to park the car, when the four guys came running back in a state of panic.
Holmes fingered Jason Wallace as the main aggressor in the group. Holmes told Torquato that Wallace went crazy and said he kept stomping on the victim’s head — and while going through his pockets, felt his body go limp.
The memo eventually made its way to state prosecutors, who turned it over to the Alaska Innocence Project in February.
Earlier this week, Fairbanks Mayor John Eberhart issued a statement expressing disappointment in the police department for sitting on the information — but also hope that a state review of the case would be thorough.
“I have confidence in our Police Department,” Eberhart wrote. “However, when mistakes are made, we must accept responsibility for them.”
“The truth is what must come out of this review, for the men incarcerated and for John Hartman,” he wrote.
The Fairbanks Four have received a groundswell of support from Alaska Native organizations, including the president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, who asked Gov. Sean Parnell for clemency.
The deadline for the state’s response was Thursday.
Assistant Attorney General Adrienne Bachman wrote the state’s position, which does not completely leave the Fairbanks Four without hope.
While the opinion stopped short of accepting the evidence, it did call for a court hearing in which witnesses could be cross-examined.
“We’re still trying to unearth as much information as we can,” Bachman said. “I don’t think we’ve heard all the information that’s out there.
“I hope more people come forward, regardless of who the information hurts or helps,” Bachman said.
The state took a harsh view of Holmes’ claims that Jason Wallace was mainly responsible for the violence.
The court filing said Holmes had no firsthand knowledge of the assault.
“He did not hear the assault, he did not see the assault and he did not participate in the assault,” Bachman wrote.
Bachman also questioned Holmes’ motives for putting the blame on Wallace, who was a central witness in two murders that Holmes was convicted of in Shasta County in 2002.
After almost two decades, there are still stones to be turned, including sealed court documents, which may possibly include Wallace’s confession of the Hartman murder to his public defender. Not even the state prosecutors have had access to these documents
While attorney-client privilege protects such communication, if it exonerates someone serving time for a crime the court may allow disclosure.
In general, the state filing said information gleaned in its investigation did not help the Fairbanks Four.
The state also discredited as hearsay the story of another witness, Scott Davidson, who said he drove around Fairbanks with Wallace shortly after the Hartman murder. Davidson claims Wallace confessed to the crime.
The court filing also points out inconsistencies in the different accounts.
April Monroe-Frick, one of the main advocates for the Fairbanks Four, called those inconsistencies minor and said the state’s review focused on legal technicalities instead of the truth.
“Five murderers were allowed to go free, and three of them went on to commit an additional five murders,” Frick said.
In January 2003, Wallace was charged with killing a Fairbanks woman by beating her in the head with a hammer and setting her apartment on fire.
The Fairbanks Four face one big challenge: Shortly after the murder, two of them gave confessions to the Fairbanks police.
“According to testimony at his trial, Eugene Vent even apologized to John Hartman’s older brother, when the brother was jailed for some unrelated charges,” Bachman wrote. “John Hartman’s brother recalls that heartfelt apology, with an emotional authenticity that makes his recollection credible.”
Advocates for the Fairbanks Four question the validity of the confessions and claim they were extracted under duress.
Bill Oberly, a defense attorney for Alaska Innocence Project, is pushing for a new trial for the Fairbanks Four.
“They were arrested in October of 1997, so if we do the math, it’s approaching 17 years,” Oberly said.
“Our belief is there are innocent men in jail,” Oberly said. “It is an insult to our justice system if we imprison innocent people. If there is evidence of innocence, it should be reviewed until people are absolutely sure that justice was done.”