FAIRBANKS—Testimony began Monday morning in the "Fairbanks Four" case before a crowded courtroom on the fifth floor of the Rabinowitz Courthouse in Fairbanks.
Over the next four weeks, attorneys for George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent will try to overturn the murder convictions of the four by proving the men are "actually innocent" of the 1997 beating death of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman.
In their effort do win exoneration, attorneys for Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent called their first witness Monday morning — William Z. Holmes Sr., a California prison inmate and in 1997 a senior at Lathrop High School. Holmes says he's spent the last 18 years knowing that Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent are innocent because he was there when Hartman was fatally beaten by others.
Holmes sat at the witness stand for most of the day, taking friendly questions from an attorney for four plaintiffs and hostile ones from the state prosecutor who's working to uphold the convictions. He was temporarily moved from his California prison to the Fairbanks Correctional Center for this hearing.
If successful, the four plaintiffs would be the first people in the state to win exoneration this way, according to Bill Oberly, president of the Alaska Innocence Project and attorney for two of the plaintiffs.
The case has taken on a larger significance among the Interior's Alaska Native leaders, who've long argued that racial bias influenced the initial investigations. Three of the four are Alaska Native. Supporters of the four plaintiffs held a rally outside the courthouse Monday, about two years from the day the four men first filed the lawsuit seeking exoneration.
"This is about the judicial system as a whole in the eyes of the Native people," said Victor Joseph, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference at the midday rally. "Is it going to be just? It's time now for our people, our young men, to be exonerated of this crime and set free."
Frese, Pease and Vent remain in prison and didn't attend first day of the hearing. Supporters are working to raise money to pay the state's costs associated with bringing them to the courthouse and keeping them guarded. Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle previously ruled that three inmates don't have a constitutional right to be present when they are not testifying because the case is a civil matter, not a criminal one.
Roberts was paroled this summer and sat next to his attorney Monday. He briefly addressed the crowd at the rally, thanking them for their support.
The alternate murder suspects
Holmes says his relationship with God and camaraderie with his prison boss and guard Joseph Torquato led him to confess his role in Hartman's killing.
"One night I was was sleeping and I woke up," he said in court Monday. "I began to pray and read my Bible and I believe God put it in my heart."
Before that, he'd lived for 14 years without really thinking about the Hartman case, he said. After high school, he said, he worked as a big-time drug dealer in Fairbanks making $10,000 to $20,000 a week before, in 2002, he killed two men in Northern California as part of a plan to take over a multi-state drug-dealing business.
The 35-year-old is serving a double life sentence and has no hope of being paroled unless the state of California changes the age range that defines youthful offenders.
He said in court Monday that he doesn't expect to get anything out of coming forward in the Hartman case.
In October 1997, Holmes was a senior at Lathrop High School. The next spring he came one final exam away from receiving his high school diploma, he said Monday. Answering questions from Anchorage Attorney Bob Bundy with the exoneration effort, Holmes recounted the story he told in a 2013 affidavit that launched the lawsuit.
On the Friday night Hartman was killed, Holmes said he was cruising downtown Fairbanks in his maroon Ford Tempo. They were looking for "drunk Natives" to harass, a cruel pastime Holmes said he and his friends had enjoyed on a few previous occasions. His passengers were classmates Jason Wallace, Marquez Pennington, Shelmar Johnson and Rashan Brown.
In language that mostly matched his previous written account, Holmes said his passengers chased two Native men into an alley downtown — not one man as he had previously stated. Holmes said his passengers didn't pursue their targets into the alley and were glad that they didn't because there was a large group of Native men in the alley.
Next, Holmes said he drove the Ford Tempo toward Airport Way, where they saw a person walking alone. Holmes' passengers again got out and Holmes said he didn't see what was happening as he "busted a U" with the car and waited for them. When they came back, they yelled for him to drive away, he said.
Wallace, in the passenger seat, was silent as they drove off, Holmes said. But the three other passengers were excitedly talking over each other.
The other passengers (Holmes didn't specify who) said "Little J (Wallace) was trippin' ... he stomped him out," Holmes said.
Throughout the testimony, prosecutors objected to hearsay quotes attributed to Wallace and others. Lyle said he'll decide on most of the hearsay issues later but allowed the statement about Wallace "trippin'" under an exception for "excited utterances."
Holmes' memory about the timing of the incident was hazy. So was his Fairbanks geography, which was built around obsolete landmarks like the old Kmart on Airport Way. He said he didn't know who the boy his friends attacked was at the time or that they were near the corner of 9th Avenue and Barnette Street. He "put two and two together" when Wallace showed him a copy of the Daily News-Miner at school on Monday with a headline about the Hartman assault.
Holmes was polite with prosecutor Adrianne Bachman's cross examination but took issue with many of her questions, often repeating them back or asking her to re-phrase them. Her questions dug into the details of the timing of his account. In a previous statement he said he spent 5 to 10 seconds waiting for his friends to come back to the car. He said Monday that most likely the assault took place over a longer span of time.
Bachman also asked Holmes if he was trying to pin another murder on Wallace as payback. Wallace was Holmes' co-defendant in the 2002 California murder case, which also had connections to Washington and Alaska. He testified against Holmes.
Holmes said he doesn't "really care about that any more" but said Wallace's betrayal bothered him at the time. He said he never thought of using the Hartman case as legal leverage against Wallace because he feared implicating himself.
Bachman also asked Holmes about how the illicit cellphone Holmes had smuggled into jail in 2012 fit with the image he's presented of himself as a repentant man trying to do the right thing. Holmes' talk of being a Christian is "a little tainted and a little disingenuous" in light of his illegal cellphone, Bachman said. Holmes said he used the cellphone to set up a Facebook account and talk to women online.
Despite the appearances created by the witnesses, attorneys and objections, the hearing is not a trial, said prosecutor Bachman during her opening statement. Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent already had fair trials in 1999 and many appeals, she said. A jury trial, she said, is the "bedrock of American jurisprudence." The idea of redoing the trial "offends the sensibilities that we all have about the 36 citizens who exercised their (jury) duty," she said.
The case is a civil post-conviction relief hearing. In their civil suit, Frese, Pease and Vent seek immediate release from jail. They and Roberts are seeking a court declaration of innocence.
Bachman said she plans to reinforce the validity of the three trials this month. The state stands behind the police interrogations that produced confessions — later retracted — from Vent and Frese and the police work of comparing a boot print to a head wound.
In addition to the original trial testimony, Bachman said the state will introduce new testimony, including from a taxi driver whom she didn't name. The taxi driver, Bachman said, told an Alaska State Trooper years after the trials that on Oct. 10 she saw a group of four "Native" or "Asian" men near the street corner where Hartman was found mortally wounded. She said one man had Pease's distinctive ponytail hairstyle.
At the midday rally, longtime Fairbanks Four advocate Shirley Lee responded to Bachman's argument about the original trials directly.
"She wants us to assume that the juries that convicted our four young men were provided evidence beyond a reasonable doubt," she said. "We know that that is not so. Those convictions were based on a foundation of sand that will wash away when all the truth is presented."
The hearing continues Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. It's expected to take about a month.
Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.
Correction: This article has been changed to reflect the following correction.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Rashan Brown.