FAIRBANKS—Four men who have spent 18 years in prison for a Fairbanks murder they say they didn't commit will have to wait until next year to hear the outcome in their latest attempt to prove their innocence.
"It's going to be a long process. We've had five weeks at trial. I have a lot of decisions I need to make," Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle said Tuesday after hearing the closing arguments in the post-conviction relief hearing of George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent and Kevin Pease.
The four men were found guilty in 1999 of fatally attacking 15-year-old John Hartman on the night of Oct. 10, 1997 on the corner of a street in downtown Fairbanks.
They have sued the state for a declaration of "actual innocence" based on new information about a second group of high school students who were allegedly the true killers and the recantation of a key witness who testified against them. Their legal team and the state's legal team have spent the past five weeks revisiting old witnesses and introducing new witnesses.
In most cases, a judge has six months under state law to render a decision from when the judge takes the matter under advisement.
Lyle said that clock won't start rolling, though, until he finishes reviewing the many thousands of pages of transcripts from the three original trials and later post-conviction relief attempts. He said he plans to have those read by the end of January, putting off a ruling until July.
And even then, Lyle said the large amount of evidence and his desire to properly review the case could push a decision date beyond six months.
“So I’m sure that you’ve heard about the six-month rule, which really isn’t the six-month rule. The six-month rule is that if I don’t get something decided six months after it’s taken under advisement, I don’t get paid," he said. "That doesn’t mean I have to do it in six months, it just means I don’t get paid if I don’t do it in six months."
Lyle later signaled that going past six months could be a possibility and that he — referring to himself in the standard judicial way as "the court" — is ready to forgo his paycheck to ensure a proper review of the case.
"I don’t want you to think that I will rush to make the six-month deadline or be concerned about how I’m going to get my own bills paid if I don’t meet the six-month deadline,” he said. “The court is prepared to deal with that.”
Lyle also laid out some of the ground work for how he will come to a ruling in the case.
“The evidence has to have been diligently obtained; it has to be new; it can’t be merely cumulative; it can’t be merely impeaching. All the facts have to be established by clear and convincing evidence and all the clearly and convincingly established facts that are new, non-cumulative and non-impeaching and that are admissible under the rules of evidence have to demonstrate clearly and convincingly actual innocence in order for you to prevail,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen, then the court is without the authority to do anything.”
The "clear and convincing" evidentiary standard is one level of evidentiary standard below the "beyond reasonable doubt" standard that jurors use in criminal cases.
If the petitioners meet that level, it's not entirely clear what the outcome will be. Lyle said it's a point that both sides still need to work out through legal briefings.
He said that he could release the four men with a declaration of innocence or order a new trial.
Another, and important issue for the case is just what evidence Lyle will be able to consider in his ruling.
"I'm not sure I have the legal authority to reweigh credibility," he said.
Both sides will file briefings arguing for and against his power to reweigh credibility. Lyle said his powers are limited in this case and that he cannot, in a post-conviction relief trial, retry this case.
"It is going to take some time," he told the petitioners.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.