FAIRBANKS — State investigators and defense attorneys are sorting through an avalanche of evidence preparing for this fall’s non-jury trial of innocence claims by four men jailed since 1997 for the murder of 15-year-old John Hartman in Fairbanks.
Some 25,000 pages of trial records, police reports, interview transcripts and other potential evidence, including an estimated 300 audio recordings, are “in the discovery pipeline,” Special Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman informed a Fairbanks judge on Wednesday.
The glimpse of the task facing attorneys on all sides came as the prosecutor sought Superior Court Judge Mark Wood’s help enforcing deadlines set for the upcoming hearing on claimed new evidence put forward by the Alaska Innocence Project and other defenders of the so-called Fairbanks Four.
“We are not doing a good job, in my estimate, in keeping on track with discovery by depositions,” warned Bachman, predicting all sides will be tested meeting Judge Paul Lyle’s summer deadlines for discovery prior to October’s anticipated two-week trial.
Sitting in for Lyle on Wednesday, Wood rejected the prosecutor’s pitch for compelling inmate Eugene Vent to answer questions under oath this week as scheduled.
“I don’t think there’s any bad faith anywhere in this particular case,” said Wood, addressing the unseen prosecutor and other case parties via teleconference. Given Vent’s forced switch in representation lawyers, he said, delaying depositions by a few weeks for one of the four men convicted is “not unreasonable.”
That request for delay came from Colleen Libbey, a private attorney who has represented Vent since 2004.
Three years ago, Libbey persuaded the Alaska Court of Appeals to reinstate Vent’s claim that his trial counsel, former prosecutor Bill Murphree, did a poor job laying the groundwork for testimony by an expert in false confessions. Late last month, with preparations in full swing for this fall’s hearing, the state terminated Libbey’s contract as of July 1.
Department of Administration spokesman Andy Mills confirmed Wednesday that Libbey’s contract is being ended as a budget move. Over the past decade, he noted by email, Vent’s private attorney cost the state $104,000. Using OPA’s in-house counsel will yield future savings.
The state continues to support Vent’s defense because he alone never exhausted his right to appeal. “I’m sad,” Libbey said of her impending departure after 11 years battling to overturn Vent’s conviction.
Wood granted Libbey extra time to get Vent’s new attorney prepared. Vent is scheduled to be deposed in mid-June, the same week as Kevin Pease, another of the convicted Hartman killers who is incarcerated at Goose Creek Correction Center near Point MacKenzie.
“He’s been cross-examined by the state of Alaska,” Libbey said earlier in the hearing, referring to Vent’s appearance on the witness stand in 1999. That trial, the second of three in the Hartman murder case, ended in Vent’s conviction and resulted in his 38-year sentence. Others convicted of Hartman’s murder received sentences ranging from 33 to 79 years.
In an interview at Goose Creek last month, Vent said he thought jurors were really listening as he sought to explain his statements about kicking Hartman during interrogation over the hours following his arrest in a thoroughly drunken state.
Vent said he sensed the mood in the courtroom change as prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant delivered his summation. A News-Miner story of July 24, 1999, noted that “The prosecutor dragged a heavy, life-size dummy into the courtroom Friday, kicking it with loud thumps as he closed the trial of 19-year-old Eugene Vent.”
Vent, now 35, said in his prison interview, “I could see peoples’ faces harden.”
The other pair convicted of Hartman’s murder — Marvin Roberts and George Frese — were deposed over the past week. Both sessions were informative, Bachman told Wood. “The state has learned new information that it will need to investigate and confront in order to effectively proceed with this post-conviction matter.”
Bachman noted that discovery must be completed by Aug. 6, with final witness lists due eight days later. “We need to get Vent on the record so we can try and investigate those things which he might disclose.”
Libbey’s replacement, Whitney Glover, of the state’s Office of Public Advocacy, already has “more than 20” post-conviction case assignments, according to Bachman. “Glover repeatedly filed affidavits in other cases,” she added, “suggesting her docket is so full she will not be able to meet deadlines.”
Sifting gigs of data for clues
Bill Oberly, executive director of the Alaska Innocence Project, bristled at the prosecutor’s inferences that defenders are holding up the case. “When they provided witness lists,” he said,” they provided zero indication what those witnesses might testify to.”
“The state has done nothing to help us move our depositions forward,” he added.
Rather than bury defenders in paper, Bachman countered, her team digitized every document and loaded 75 gigabytes of fully searchable material on thumb drives. Most of that information was delivered in March, as Lyle ordered. April’s last evidentiary supplement fit on a single CD, she said.
No one brought up the potential evidence that has held up Lyle’s first consideration of discovery by more than a year: confidential statements by a former partner of William Z. Holmes, the inmate whose claimed 2012 Hartman murder confession thrust the case back into the headlines. The judge’s December decision on the Innocence Project’s request to waive “privilege claims” shielding whatever Jason Wallace told a public defender years ago remains under seal, awaiting action by the Court of Appeals.
As Wednesday’s brief hearing concluded, Wood, a district judge when the case first came down, remarked on the old murder’s lingering shadow.
“I’m generally familiar with the allegations. And the concerns,” he said. “Just following it in the newspaper like everybody else.”
UAF Journalism student Julia Taylor assisted researching this story. Brian O’Donoghue, a UAF professor and former News-Miner reporter, has been researching the Hartman case with the help of journalism students since 2001. Over the years, results of UAF’s public service investigation have been shared with all interested parties, including tribal organizations, Alaska Innocence Project, Fairbanks Police Department and the district attorney’s office.