FAIRBANKS — A leak breaching attorney-client privilege likely figures in a sealed court filing and could add weight to a claimed confession by an inmate who says he and four high school friends were involved in the killing of John Hartman 16 years ago.

The client whose confidential statements will soon be weighed by a judge is Jason Wallace, who was represented by the Public Defender Agency. He is one of four former Lathrop friends who inmate William Z. Holmes now claims accompanied him the night they gave 15-year-old Hartman a fatal beating in October 1997.

What, if anything, Wallace said about the Hartman case to the public defender representing him in an unrelated 2002 murder would traditionally stay secret under attorney-client privilege. The Alaska Innocence Project is arguing a lapse in security justifies pulling back the legal curtain shielding the client’s alleged statements supporting Holmes’ account of the murder.

The sealed brief is part of the nonprofit Alaska Innocence Project bid’s to overturn convictions of the so-called “Fairbanks Four”  — Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, George Frese and Kevin Pease, the group convicted and serving long sentences for Hartman’s murder.

A reference to the contents of the sealed brief in last week’s 131-page public filing provides this clue to the contents and the breach in security within the office that handled Wallace’s defense: “The nature and specifics of the next statements made by Jason Wallace is the subject of the sealed motion filed with this Application. Applicant contends these statements are no longer confidential and asks the Court to so rule and make them part of this Application.”

Christmas bloodbath partners

Holmes, 33,  and Wallace, 32, attended school together in the late 1990s. The pair presently are locked away, serving, respectively, double-life and 60-year prison terms for a failed drug-ring takeover in December 2002. The crime left three dead in two states, including 25-year-old Teacka Bacote, who Wallace killed with a hammer that Dec. 27. He then torched her Ester apartment attempting to cover his tracks.

In the aftermath, Wallace’s scorched face and aroma of gasoline generated suspicion at Fairbanks International Airport, where he’d tried to change his ticket for an earlier plane out of Alaska. He was detained, then arrested, confessing by week’s end.

Holmes had already been picked up in California after shooting their two partners in the head Christmas eve, killing Hakeem Bryant, 25, of Fairbanks, and Christopher Martin, 27, of Olympia, Wash.

Wallace’s confession helped authorities in three states sort out the mayhem. When his partner stood trial in California in 2005, Wallace testified against Holmes as part of a plea bargain, a drawn-out process that delayed his own sentencing until February 2007. All that while, he had court-appointed, state-funded representation through the Public Defenders Agency’s office in Fairbanks.

Tradition and the law

What passes between clients and lawyers isn’t as private as laymen may assume. “It’s a corporate secret,” said law Professor James Moliterno, of Washington & Lee University in Virginia. “There’s a quick difference between the lawyer and a priest; the lawyer needs a lot of people to get the work done. It’s only the priest and God that need to do anything. Nobody else the priest associates with needs to know.”

Anyone within a legal office tasked with handling work related to a case, from filing notes to fact-checking the client’s statements, may receive access to the client secrets. It falls on the attorney covered by the privilege to manage the secrets shared behind the office curtain, according to Lawrence Fox, a partner with Drinker Biddle & Reath in Philadelphia, a nationally recognized expert in legal professional responsibility. “I have to send out a memo to my law office employees. I get them to sign it — every year! — saying ‘Don’t you dare disclose any confidential information.’ You who type my briefs or you who work in the mailroom are privy to a lot of secrets. My obligation is to prevent them from disclosing anything.”

Until recently, professional rules governing lawyers in Alaska, as elsewhere in the nation, placed attorneys at risk of losing their license for breaking a client’s confidence, other than to report perjury by a witness or to prevent imminent harm. In 2009, Alaska joined Massachusetts as the only states with bar rules granting attorneys discretion to waive confidentiality if “reasonably necessary” to prevent “wrongful incarceration.”

Wallace’s public defender, Geoff Wildridge, takes attorney client privilege seriously. Thirty years as a criminal defense lawyer leaves him convinced confidentiality is essential to fulfilling his profession’s mission of ensuring every client receives the best possible representation in court. Discussing Alaska’s bar rule change in 2011, Wildridge said he still he wasn’t sure he’d break confidentiality without permission, even for a dead client.

That same summer, Bill Oberly, executive director of the Alaska Innocence Project, said the Hartman case was in mind when he pushed for the amendment to Alaska Bar Rule 1.6.

Through visiting room glass

Wallace, then 23, still filled a cell at Fairbanks Correctional Center awaiting sentencing in the drug-murder conspiracy when a tip came to this reporter in 2004 from attorney Dick Madson.

Despite Roberts’ 1999 conviction in the Hartman case, longtime defense attorney Madson believed his client was innocent. He’d heard that Wallace knew something about Hartman’s murder. He assumed the information came from someone within the public defenders office, which had assisted with not only Roberts’ defense but also with that of Vent, Frese and Pease — and now represented Wallace.

“I’m sure it did,” Madson said last week when asked if the information about Wallace had leaked from the Public Defender Agency. Now retired, Madson, 78, said he doesn’t fault someone in the know for sharing what’s customarily kept secret — not in the face of what he considers to be a systematic failure to deliver justice.

“Whether it came from an investigator or someone else in the office,” he said, “I believe it’s appropriate.”

On the last Friday in May 2004, Wallace appeared startled when the reporter on the other side of FCC’s visiting room glass told him his name had come up in the Hartman case.

“Who said that?” he demanded several times. Eventually, he said that he “may” have “something to say” about the case. He said he needed to pray on it first.

On the next visit, Wallace ducked back out, slashing at his neck with one hand.

Television reporter Darryl Lewis Sr., following up on the same tip later that summer, couldn’t get Wallace’s permission to bring in his camera.

“I set up an interview and he did not agree to it,” he recalled in a recent telephone interview. “There was paperwork he needed to sign.

“I knew all of them,” Lewis added, “Hakeem Bryant, Bill Holmes, not as running buddies, but knew of them.”

A year later, Wildridge also declined requests for follow-up with Wallace. “As his attorney, I’m asking you not to talk to my client,” he told this reporter. “But keep asking those questions.”

The state reacts

Contacted at home Sept. 29, Public Defender Agency case investigator Thomas Bole, whose past assignments include fact-checking alibis of Roberts and co-defendants in the Hartman case as well as matters related to Wallace’s defense, had this to say: “I work for the Public Defenders office. I can’t talk to you unless the head of the Public Defenders office or the attorney tell me to.”

Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Hite, supervisor of the agency’s Northern Region office in Fairbanks, declined to take questions about Wallace. “I am unable to discuss any aspect of a client’s representation,” she responded by email Monday.

The state Department of Law has asked the Bureau of Investigation unit of the Alaska State Troopers to independently review the new information presented in the Hartman case.

John Skidmore, head of the department’s Criminal Law Division, reiterated Friday that the state is “looking into” all that’s being offered as new evidence. Asked about the brief, he said, “I really can’t comment on anything that’s sealed.”   

Wildridge, for his part, has consistently declined to comment on whether his client ever mentioned the Hartman case. “My position hasn’t changed,” he said last week. “Do what you need to do.”

UAF Journalism professor Brian O’Donoghue, a former News-Miner reporter and editor, has been researching the Hartman case with the help of students since 2001. His seven-part series examining the case, “Decade of Doubt: The John Hartman Murder,” appeared in the News-Miner in July 2008. O’Donoghue is not affiliated with the Alaska Innocence Project or Fairbanks Four social media campaign. Over the years, results of UAF Journalism’s public service investigation have been shared with all interested parties, including tribal organizations, the Fairbanks Police Department and the district attorney’s office.