“Confidential Hearing — Do Not Enter,” read the card posted outside Courtroom 401.
One by one, supporters of the so-called Fairbanks Four drifted over to the tall, locked doors and peeked through the center crack.
The view: glimpses of nearby troopers and Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle facing the gallery seats those stuck outside had hoped to pack.
“It’s a confidential hearing for the duration,” Sgt. Tim Schoenberg, of the Alaska State Troopers, had explained, turning away would-be spectators for the 9 a.m. proceeding.
Also visible: a red-numbered digital clock tracking the duration of Monday’s arguments about whether “attorney-client privilege” prevents disclosure of comments Seward inmate Jason Wallace may have made years ago discussing John Hartman’s 1997 murder with a public defender.
Minutes turned to hours. Relatives and other supporters of the Alaska Native group convicted in the case killed time on the forth floor of Rabinowitz Courthouse. Heads bowed in prayer. Some debated what was happening inside. One couple traded a young baby back and forth. Many stayed glued to cellphones.
“We’re just praying and hoping that the judge does the right thing,” said Sharon Roberts, whose brother Marvin, 19 years old at the time of his arrest, turns 37 this week. “This has gone on too long.”
In September 2013, Alaska Innocence Project renewed attention on longstanding innocence claims by Roberts, Eugene Vent, now 34, Kevin Pease, 36, and George Frese, 37, and with a post-conviction relief filing anchored by a claimed confession by William Z. Holmes, a one-time Fairbanks rapper serving double-life in California for a failed drug-ring takeover in 2002.
Wallace’s old “privileged” statements, that filing asserts, corroborate Holmes’ 2012 claim that he, Wallace and three other Lathrop High School classmates killed the 15-year-old. Holmes, now 34, partnered with Wallace in the later conspiracy that left three dead in two states and both serving long prison terms. That October night in high school, he now says, they were out cruising for drunken Alaska Natives to stomp when they happened upon a lone white boy.
Talk turned to justice outside the closed doors.
“Innocent people are put behind bars when somebody confessed? That’s wrong,” said Pete Peters, a 24-year Alaska National Guard veteran from Venitie. “Democracy, that’s why we fought for this country and defended it.”
Sarafina Lillie, who remembers Marvin Roberts as a child, said she raised her own sons to be wary of authority. “I told them that they gotta be careful,” she said. “They have to be careful because once you’re in the law’s hands, that’s it. They can do anything they want.”
At 1 p.m., the doors of Courtroom 401 briefly opened.
Out strode Thomas Bole, an investigator for the public defenders agency. Back in the late 1990s, he applied his talents as a P.I. for the defense of Roberts, Pease, Frese and Vent, the men who have now served 17 years for Hartman’s murder.
“I’m not going to answer your questions,” Bole said, declining to discuss whether he testified during his four hours inside the closed chamber. “Thank you for asking,” he said, ducking into an elevator at the Rabinowitz Courthouse.
Another hour passed before others privy to the closed proceedings finally spilled out.
Bill Oberly, Alaska Innocence Project’s director and sole attorney, paused before the TV crews camped out at the door.
“The answer is ‘no.’ I can’t say anything,” declared Oberly, refusing to discuss who testified, or who was present, or how the judge seemed to react. “Even if I did have a feeling, I couldn’t tell you.”
Jason Gazewood, a local attorney and former prosecutor Lyle appointed to represent Wallace’s interests in the case, exited without taking any questions.
The new face as far as these proceedings go, Richard Norgard, of Port Clinton, Ohio, confirmed only that he testified. “Ex parte hearing. I can’t get into specifics,” said the retired public defender agency investigator, who has assisted with the Innocence Project’s work. “I’m happy to come up and do it. Anything I can do for this case.”
The other attorney to emerge, Colleen Libbey, has represented her client, Vent, since 2006, in an appeal initiated three years earlier. She, too, declined to discuss anything that transpired Monday. Libbey did say she isn’t surprised the Hartman murder case continues to find traction in court. “It’s not that surprising. Most post-conviction relief proceedings take many, many, years,” she said. “I’ve got one that’s taken even longer.”
Brian O’Donoghue is a journalism professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Investigative Reporting student Julia Taylor contributed to this story. UAF Journalism has been covering the Hartman murder case as a public interest project since 2001.