FAIRBANKS - The two men who headed the Fairbanks District Attorney's office defended their decisions to not reveal a jailhouse confession about the killing of a Fairbanks teenager in 1997 to the four men who were convicted of the killing.
Former District Attorney Mike Gray and his former deputy, Scott Mattern, both retired, testified in court Wednesday that they didn't think the confession, made by a convicted murderer, was credible when a memo about it arrived in their email inboxes in 2011.
The memo from a California prison guard details the confession of William Z. Holmes, who's serving a double-life sentence for two murders, to the prison guard. Holmes says he and others took part in the fatal assault on 15-year-old John Hartman in downtown Fairbanks on the night of Oct. 10, 1997. Holmes later provided the confession in an affidavit.
It's been the critical piece of information in the bid to overturn the convictions of Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent and was the basis of the 2013 court filings that have led to this month-long hearing in Fairbanks Superior Court.
The lawsuit calls for a declaration of actual innocence and release from prison. Roberts was paroled this year and has been attending the hearings in-person. The other three are still serving prison terms.
The specific claim surrounding the prison guard’s memo alleges prosecutorial misconduct for withholding evidence that was favorable to Roberts, Frese, Pease and Vent and calls for an evidentiary hearing on the charges.
Holmes' confession to the California prison guard was that he drove fellow Lathrop High School classmate Jason Wallace and others while looking for drunken Alaska Natives to harass when they fatally attacked who they later discovered was Hartman.
Holmes refused to tell the prison guard the identity of the other young men but later named Rashan Brown, Marquez Pennington and Shelmar Johnson.
The memo made it to the Fairbanks Police Department, where it was forwarded to both Mattern and Gray for advice.
Mattern took the lead because he was familiar with Holmes and Wallace. He had been the prosecutor who convicted Wallace for a murder that was part of a plot to take over a drug ring. Wallace's testimony also helped convict Holmes of two murders in California as part of the same plot.
"I responded back that they needed to follow up on this and check it out," Mattern said. "But based on the fact that Wallace testified against Holmes, this seemed very suspicious to me. It didn't seem very credible."
Fairbanks Police Department Lt. Dan Welborn also asked if the memo was exculpatory evidence and was required to be turned over to the attorneys of the men convicted of killing Hartman.
When asked about his advice during an argumentative cross-examination with Kate Demarest, the Dorsey & Whitney attorney representing Frese, Mattern said that rule only applies if it's credible information.
"It has to be a reasonably prudent person would think that it was credible," he said. "When you look at the context of jailhouse confessions, almost uniformly the appellate courts, which I assume are reasonable, say these are viewed with a high degree of suspicion and distrust."
Demarest followed up, asking about their murder convictions.
"That's because, if I'm understanding you correctly, you found it not credible that the two guys—Holmes and Wallace—who had murdered three people together in 2002 could have also murdered someone else in 1997?"
After some back and forth, Mattern explained the memo was suspicious because the killings weren't similar, Wallace had perpetrated his killing with a weapon, and Holmes' possible motive for revenge.
"It's not sufficiently similar, number one," he said. "And number two, you've got Holmes pointing the finger at the guy who put him up for life."
Gray testified after Mattern, saying he knew little about the Hartman case and said he left the memo to Mattern to handle.
He said he would also have had cause to be skeptical about the credibility of Holmes' confession but said many parts of it could have been easily followed-up on, like whether or not Holmes was in Fairbanks at the time.
"It’s something that should have been followed up on," he said.
According to the email correspondence reviewed in court Wednesday Mattern's email back to Welborn also included some cursory checking of Holmes' story.
He said there were no reports of teens targeting drunken Alaska Natives at the time and that there wasn't firm information Holmes was in town based on a search of run-ins with the police.
Both assumptions, Demarest pointed out with school records and at least three police reports, were incorrect.
Mattern said it was just his recollection and it should have been up to the investigators to make sure.
But according to earlier testimony in this hearing, that investigation never took place.
The memo was handed to police Detective Chris Nolan, who has already testified in court that he received it, felt it necessary to research the case before investigating and never got around to it before he retired a few years later.
"I set it aside and I never saw it again until they did the announcement (of the filing based on Holmes' confession) here at the court house," he said in a video deposition played during the first week of the hearings. "I saw that announcement and went, "Oh, crap." Because this was sitting right next to my computer. I thought, 'Oh, my god.'"
Mattern defended handing off the memo to the Police Department and not following up on it, saying he would have been informed if the investigation turned up something.
The state still has many witnesses scheduled to testify, including Marvin Roberts' mother, Hazel Mayo; and John Hartman's brother, Chris "Sean" Kelly. But one of the most significant witnesses is scheduled for Friday: Judge Paul Lyle approved a transport order for Wallace to appear in court that day starting at 8:30 a.m.
Wallace has already been deposed on the case but refused to answer questions citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. However, that's likely to change now that the state has offered Wallace immunity in exchange for his testimony.
The hearing is scheduled to resume Thursday at 8:30 a.m. The entire hearing was expected to go through the end of this week, but there has already been talk of more hearings next week.
Another new witness
As the state has set out to defend the convictions of the Fairbanks Four this week, its attorneys have brought forward a handful of new witnesses with serious claims against the four.
On Wednesday the court heard from Paul Solomon, a Fort Yukon man who was in Fairbanks on a break from working on the North Slope in October 1997.
He testified that he had been assaulted outside the Mecca Bar by four young Native men he later recognized as Roberts, Pease, Frese and Vent. He said he was attacked after he told them he didn't have a cigarette.
Solomon said he scuffled with them, dodged their strikes and landed punches on at least three of the men before they were chased off by the bar’s patrons.
He said it occurred in broad daylight but that even though the bar patrons recognized the men, they didn't name them and refused to help him file a police report. He said he tried to do so the next day but that he apparently wasn't taken seriously.
The testimony clashes with prior testimony from the four men that they didn't spend time together outside of playing on the Howard Luke Academy basketball team.
It's also unclear just when the event happened. The four men were convicted of taking part in a violent crime spree on Oct. 10, 1997, a Friday, that included a robbery before the fatal assault of Hartman.
Under cross-examination, Solomon said he couldn't remember the day of the week but said he knew it wasn't Friday.
He said he recognized their picture a few days later when they appeared in the paper during their arrest. He said he only decided to come forward nearly 18 years later when he saw Roberts was paroled from prison. He had received the shortest sentence of the four.
Solomon, like the other witnesses brought forward by the state with potentially damaging testimony, appeared only in video testimony and suggested he might be at risk for retribution by supporters of Roberts, Frese, Pease and Vent.
"I even asked to be relocated," Solomon said during his testimony. "But I'm not going to do that. I didn't see them kill that kid. All I'm saying is that they are the ones who beat me up on Second Avenue."
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.