FAIRBANKS — Results of the state’s lie detector test of California inmate William Z. Holmes supports his account of John Hartman’s 1997 murder, according to a court filing by a new legal team representing one of the four other men who so far have served 17 years for the crime.
“Holmes’ performance was consistent with ‘a person not attempting deception in answering the relevant questions,’ as shown in discovery …” states a footnote in a motion filed Monday by George Frese’s new pro bono defenders from the Anchorage office of Dorsey and Whitney, an international law firm.
Robert Bundy, a former U.S. attorney for Alaska and leading Dorsey’s team, called the fleeting reference a “justified” response to state filings attacking Holmes’ credibility. He declined to discuss details of the Alaska State Trooper report cited in his firm’s motion in support of prosecutorial misconduct allegations in the case.
“We’ve got to be careful that we don’t antagonize the judge in any way,” said Bundy, who was in Fairbanks for the Alaska Bar Association’s convention last week.
The state and defense teams are gearing up for a two-week non-jury hearing this October regarding the Alaska Innocence Project’s 2013 bid to overturn the four Hartman murder convictions. The polygraph report and other material were provided to defense attorneys by the state under a discovery order issued by Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle.
As part of the post-conviction relief process, the state gets to depose Frese and the other men convicted of Hartman’s fatal assault. Marvin Roberts was scheduled for the prosecution team’s questioning last week. Eugene Vent and Kevin Pease also will have their turns answering questions under oath.
Contacted for comment about a possible lie detector report, Special Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman referred questions to Department of Law supervisors.
Alaska Attorney General Craig Richards subsequently confirmed that Holmes was given a polygraph more than a year ago. A trooper prepared a “five-page police report” on Holmes’ Feb. 12, 2014, exam, Richards wrote in a May 8 letter responding to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Journalism Department’s request for all related records. “The report includes the pre-test interview and an analysis of the data.”
Richards withheld the actual report, citing the Alaska Public Records Act exemptions for releasing records that may: “… interfere with enforcement proceedings; … would deprive a person of a fair trial; … constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of a suspect, victim or witness; …endanger the life or physical safety of an individual.”
Holmes’ polygraph exam took place the day after troopers interviewed Joseph Torquato, the California prison guard who first reported that an inmate assisting him in the prison chapel had confessed to an old Fairbanks murder.
Holmes, serving a double life sentence for an unrelated murder conspiracy some years later, told the guard he and several Lathrop High School classmates made the random attack on Hartman while cruising for trouble.
A supervisor forwarded Torquato’s December 2011 memo about Holmes’ claimed confession to Fairbanks police, who in turn forwarded it to the Fairbanks District Attorney’s Office. Though Vent still had an active appeal, his longtime attorney, Colleen Libbey, was not notified of the memo until after the troopers’ 2014 visit, providing the basis for her client’s prosecutorial misconduct claims.
The DA assured grand jurors that either Frese or Vent would turn state’s evidence. When the four Hartman murder suspects faced trial in 1999, neither did. Instead, Roberts and Vent spurned plea-bargains offering five years in return for their testimony against the others.
Three Hartman murder trials were held, each relocated to Anchorage due to publicity. Frese, the first to face a jury, got 75 years. Vent received 39 years following conviction in the second trial. Pease and Roberts, prosecuted together, were given 77 and 33 years, respectively.
In the years afterward, Frese declared his willingness to take a lie detector test.
In a 2002 interview, then-District Attorney Jeff O’Bryant dismissed the value of lie detector exams by Frese or any of his co-defendants. The lead prosecutor in all three Hartman trials pointed out polygraphs weren’t admissible under Alaska law. “As I wear my DA hat,” he said, “it doesn’t interest me, because it isn’t factored in and can’t be factored into our justice system.”
Two Alaska Superior Court judges have since allowed use of polygraph evidence. Decisions in both cases are under consolidated appeal, according to David Raskin, a retired University of Utah psychology professor emeritus and nationally recognized polygraph expert now based in Palmer.
Court admissibility aside, law enforcement agencies, including the Alaska State Troopers, have long used polygraphs in their investigations, Raskin said. “If they feel that the person failed the test,” he said, “the subsequent interrogation often produces useful information, including many confessions. So, in that sense, it can be very valuable as an investigative tool.
“On the other hand, it can also result in false confessions following an interrogation in which the person is told they failed a polygraph.”
Raskin’s past examination subjects include serial killer Ted Bundy. He has no affiliation with any party in the Hartman murder case, though he finds the conflicting confessions intriguing.
Frese, now 38, the oldest of the men convicted, was just 20 the afternoon he limped into the Emergency Room of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.
“Foot pain,” stated the triage assessment. “Got in a fight last night, doesn’t know how it happened. He was drunk. He has a bruise.”
Elsewhere at FMH, an unconscious teen delivered by ambulance about 3 a.m. remained on life support. Facial bruises suggested he’d been kicked. Hartman, 15, was identified by his mother that same night. He died less than a day later.
Police investigating what was already being deemed a possible fatal assault were alerted by a nurse to the patient hurt following a fight he didn’t recall.
Detectives persuaded Frese, when he was released that afternoon, to accompany them to the police station. By then, he’d been assured his boot matched the victim’s bruises. Within hours, detectives had Frese’s confession. His statement corroborated Vent’s. Both confessed to jumping out of Roberts’ car. Pease, they said, delivered the most vicious kicks to the young stranger.
Seventeen years later, a lean prisoner wearing Cook Inlet Pre-Trial yellow, hair trailing in tight ponytail, chin dripping a ragged goatee, faces a visitor through thick glass. Connected by phone, he mentions dreams of “living off the grid,” an article he read about biodiesel, and his plans for investing compensation money in real estate.
Frese, who still has decades to serve, insists all four eventually will be cleared. “We always had appeals going. It had to go through for one of us, and that would open it up,” he said. “I mean we all knew. We’re innocent.”
UAF journalism student Julia Taylor assisted with research for this story. Brian O’Donoghue, a UAF professor and former News-Miner reporter, has been covering 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, the Alaska Innocence Project, the Fairbanks Police Department and the district attorney’s office.