Special Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman does not oppose an evidentiary hearing in the Fairbanks Four case, saying it will be “the defendant’s burden to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that they are factually innocent” of the 1997 murder of John Hartman, a Fairbanks teenager.
But in a 23-page review of the case submitted to the Superior Court on May 15, Bachman states that the defendants’ claims of innocence “are based on likely inadmissible evidence;” a prison inmate’s sworn statement that his friend inflicted the fatal injuries is based on hearsay; a potentially corroborating statement is from a 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.
Bachman, an assistant state attorney general, was directed by an Alaska Superior Court last fall to review George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent’s case after the Alaska Innocence Project obtained a sworn statement from William Holmes, a former Fairbanks man serving life in a California prison for murdering two drug-ring rivals in 2002, providing new details about the assault that led to Hartman’s death.
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In his three-page sworn statement, Holmes wrote that on the evening of October 11, 1997, he and four high school friends – not the Fairbanks Four – were driving around town looking for “drunk Natives” to harass when they “saw a white boy walking alone.” Holmes stopped the car, the four friends got out and knocked the boy to the ground. As one of the friends went through the boy’s pockets, another friend, Jason Wallace, repeatedly stomped the boy, Holmes wrote.
When Holmes and Wallace read in the newspaper that the boy, John Hartman, had died later in the hospital, Holmes told all four friends “to tell no one about that night … act like that night never happened.” Bill Oberly of the Alaska Innocence Project said Holmes decided to finally talk about Hartman’s death because he’s a Christian now and a corrections officer in whom he had confided urged him to come forward.
Holmes’ statement is dated August 12, 2012. The Alaska Innocence Project spent nearly a year corroborating Holmes’ confession before asking the Superior Court to consider a new trial. That request, for what is called “post-conviction relief,” was filed September 25, 2013.
Wallace is in prison for a murder connected to Holmes’ drug-ring murders. The Alaska Innocence Project believes Wallace told his public defender about Hartman’s death while preparing for his own trial, and has asked the court to open a related file. The court has appointed Wallace a lawyer, who opposes the innocence project’s request on the grounds that any statement made by Wallace to his public defender is protected under attorney-client privilege.
Supporters of the Fairbanks Four have long contended the Native men were wrongfully convicted, citing lack of DNA evidence tying them to the crime; alibi witnesses that placed the four at different locations that night; faulty testimony from a key witness for the prosecution; and confessions, later recanted, obtained using an interrogation technique described by one court as “guilt-presumptive, confrontational [and] psychologically manipulative …”
Supporters’ doubts of the state’s interest in reexamining the case were bolstered by several occurrences since the Alaska Innocence Project’s filing of the Holmes confession.
First, the law sets a 45-day deadline for review, but the court granted Bachman a six-month extension.
On January 17, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that Superior Court Judge Paul 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, the corrections officer in whom he 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, who was not chief during the Fairbanks Four arrests and trials, told reporters in Fairbanks that the information wasn’t regarded as cause for a new investigation.
The innocence project investigated details regarding the corrections officer’s memo and on May 7 asked the court to add it to the record.
Fairbanks Mayor John Eberhart told ICTMN on May 10 that he met with the police chief after reading a newspaper report about the memo and reviewed internal e-mails related to the department’s handling of the information. He said the memo was passed on to a police officer who made one attempt to contact the corrections officer. “The investigator wasn’t able to talk to him [that day], and that’s where it stayed,” Eberhart said.
The mayor said he asked the police chief if the department has any written policy or procedure regarding how the information should have been handled and learned “there are no written policies.”
Eberhart said the information was not followed up on because of “human error.” He said the department needs a policy or procedure to ensure new information in cases is followed up on.
“I know they’re busy, but there should be a way to prioritize,” the mayor said.
In Fairbanks, the mayor is the police chief’s boss. Eberhart, who became mayor in October, served as a council member from 2003 to 2013 and doesn’t recall any public discussion in that time between the council and mayor regarding the Fairbanks Four case.
Eberhart is also a lawyer and represented two Alaska Native organizations while on the council, and said he would have avoided council discussion of the case. But if it were up to him, he said, he would have asked the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to get involved to bolster public confidence that the case was being handled fairly.
Next: The discovery phase, in which the state and the innocence project will obtain information by requesting documents from each other and interviewing potential witnesses. This can take three or four months, Oberly said. Then, an evidentiary hearing, at which the state and the innocence project will introduce evidence and call witnesses. After this hearing, the court will make a decision whether to order a new trial. If the judge orders a new trial, all four will be able to ask for bail.
“I am expecting that William Holmes will testify at the hearing,” Oberly said. “Holmes and Wallace will testify like any other witnesses, if Wallace doesn’t invoke his 5th Amendment rights, and will be judged by the trier of fact whether they are believable or not like any other witness.”
April Monroe-Frick, who manages the advocacy site TheFairbanksFour.com, said she recently talked to the four defendants and said they are confident that their innocence will be proven. “They believe in their families and friends,” she said.
Monroe-Frick said if information was withheld that could have proven the defendants’ innocence, that’s tantamount to wrongful imprisonment and those responsible should be held accountable. Noting that she would be prosecuted for wrongfully restraining someone without justification, Monroe-Frick said, “They should be held to the same standard.”