Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly identified convicted murderer Eugene Vent's trial attorney. Vent’s trial attorney was William Murphrey.
FAIRBANKS — The Alaska Court of Appeals ruled Friday that one of the four men convicted of killing a 15-year-old Fairbanks boy in 1997 should get a new hearing on his claim that his trial attorney gave him poor counsel.
The appeals court, in a 12-page unanimous ruling, said Superior Court Judge Ben Esch erred when he conducted his own research and used the research in part to deny an appeal by Eugene Vent that his attorney was ineffective. Vent claims his attorney failed to adequately argue against the judge’s exclusion of testimony from an expert in coercive police interrogations and false confessions.
“We hold that the trial judge’s conduct created an appearance of partiality that warrants his disqualification from this case and that requires a new post-conviction relief hearing before a different judge,” the appeals court ruling states.
Vent, Marvin Roberts, George Frese and Kevin Pease were convicted in 1999 of killing and sexually assaulting John Hartman, whose badly beaten body was found on a Barnette Street corner on Oct. 11, 1997. He died at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.
The four are serving sentences of 33 to 79 years in a Colorado prison.
Many, especially in the Alaska Native community, argue the four are innocent since no physical evidence was produced in the case. The case draws annual rallies of support for the four, and Tanana Chiefs Conference is offering a reward of as much as $35,000 for information that will lead to apprehension of other suspects in the case.
Friday’s ruling does not give Vent a new trial, only a new hearing to pursue one, said Anchorage attorney Colleen Libbey, who represents Vent.
“There’s a lot more that has to be done, but we are happy with the opinion,” she said.
Prosecutors now have a window of 15 days if they want to take the issue to the state supreme court. If the appeals court decision is not brought to the supreme court, Vent will be assigned a new hearing on the issue of whether he had effective counsel.
Esch, who is now a Superior Court Judge in Nome, was the trial judge in the case and also oversaw the appeal hearing on the issue of whether Vent had competent legal representation. The independent research he conducted had to do with whether legal maneuvers Vent’s attorney could have conducted had been successful elsewhere. The attorney wanted Esch to permit the testimony of Richard Leo, an expert witness on coercive police interrogations and false confessions. The appeals court concluded a judge may research uncontested matters of fact outside the courtroom, but Esch’s research went beyond, violating the Alaska Code of Judicial Conduct.
The appeals court’s ruling ends with a sweeping statement.
“We conclude that vacating the judgment in this case will promote justice in future cases: It will clarify the proper scope of judicial notice and encourage judges to avoid ex parte investigations that may create an appearance of partiality.
“We also conclude that, when a judge reaches outside the record to marshal evidence that benefits one party, the unfairness of the resulting decision is apparent.
“A failure to act in these circumstances could undermine public confidence in the judicial process.”
Contact the newsroom at 459-7572. Follow him on Twitter, @FDNMcrime. Managing editor Rod Boyce contributed to this report.