FAIRBANKS — A former chief investigator for the Alaska Public Defender Agency leaked old secrets about John Hartman’s murder to the Alaska Innocence Project, according to an inmate’s latest argument for keeping what he has said about the teen’s 1997 beating confidential.
Investigator Richard Norgard, who helped found the Alaska Innocence Project while working for the Public Defender Agency, shared what he learned through his state job with the nonprofit group seeking to overturn verdicts against the so-called Fairbanks Four, according to a Jan. 5 petition filed on behalf of inmate Jason Wallace.
“I2,” as Norgard is identified in the petition, “already knew J.W.’s secrets from when he was employed by the Public Defender Agency. He is now attempting to exploit J.W.’s secrets on behalf of his current client.”
The petition asks the Alaska Court of Appeals to block the release of “privileged” statements Wallace made to a public defender representing him in an unrelated murder. The Innocence Project, in public filings about sealed arguments before the court, characterizes Wallace as backing up the sworn Hartman case confession by William Z. Holmes, his partner in later drug murders that landed both in jail for decades to come.
Holmes, whose claim to the Hartman murder was first reported by a California prison guard in December 2011, says he, Wallace, and three other Lathrop High School friends are responsible for brutally assaulting the white teenager who was later found comatose in the shadows near a busy downtown street one morning in October 1997.
Hartman, barely 15, died without regaining consciousness. Four current and former students from what was then Howard Luke Academy were swiftly arrested and later convicted in a series of headline-grabbing trials. Each has served 17 years for the murder they each insist they did not commit.
Anchorage attorney Colleen Libbey represents the youngest of the four, Eugene Vent, now 35, whose drunken confession gave direction to the initial police investigation. The Alaska Innocence Project represents the other three: George Frese, Kevin Pease and Marvin Roberts.
Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle has circulated a tentative opinion that Wallace’s attorney is battling to keep sealed. This week, Lyle agreed to delay releasing his decision while appellate justices decide whether to take the case. That stay extends to Feb. 13, when the judge wants updates on the appellate review and feedback on announced deadlines for pre-trial discovery on other case issues, including claims of prosecutorial misconduct.
In a brief interview during a recent visit to Fairbanks, Gov. Bill Walker referred to the ongoing review of the Hartman verdicts as a “big issue” his administration is watching closely. “I’ve had a number of meetings with the attorney general,” he said, “solely on this case.”
Finding a way past the curtain
The call for appellate review follows a year of closed Superior Court hearings and sealed motions among those Lyle deemed “parties of interest” in the Innocence Project’s attempt to present evidence traditionally excluded from consideration in court.
Lyle allowed a select few to stay inside or dial-in for teleconferences when the public was ordered to leave: attorneys for the men convicted of Hartman’s murder; representatives of the Public Defender Agency, and Jason Gazewood, who the judge appointed this March to represent Wallace’s interests.
Hearing logs show inmate Wallace also participated in most closed sessions via teleconference from Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward.
Adrienne Bachman, the special prosecutor charged with reviewing claimed new evidence the state wrongfully convicted the four men, has not been allowed to participate. That situation “potentially confounds the state response,” as she put it in her May report to the court.
Up until now, the Public Defender Agency’s interest could only be inferred from agency motion titles opposing “waiver of privilege.” In late June, Lyle dismissed those motions and the agency’s claims for standing in the case. By that time, Wallace’s attorney, Gazewood, had billed the state more than $10,000 for “professional services” protecting interests of an inmate presently serving 60 years under terms of his plea bargain in the unrelated murder case.
The petition filed this month on Wallace’s behalf outlines the leak’s origin without detailing the secrets seeding speculation among supporters of Frese, Vent, Roberts and Pease on social media.
Arguments penned by Gazewood do signal Lyle is ready to open the legal profession’s confessional.
“Now what J.W. is purported to have said to his attorney under sacred protection of attorney-client privilege is readily available on the Internet,” the petition states. “And the Superior Court thinks this is OK.”
Another reference takes aim at Lyle’s yet-to-be released justification for admitting evidence Wallace’s attorney wants suppressed as “fruit of a poisonous tree.”
“The trial court further ruled that the remedy for the breach is only that the statements cannot be used against J.W., but that they are admissible ...”
Innocence Project's 'founding' source
The petition traces the leaked murder secrets to a series of encounters between two investigators before and after they both worked at the Public Defender Agency.
Though the petition refers to the pair as “I1” and “I2,” mentioning no names, the identities remain clear from their job histories, other court records, and a telltale exit from closed proceedings in November.
“I1” according to the petition, held “strong opinions” about the Hartman verdicts dating from his work as for the original defense team. That can only be Thomas L. Bole, a private investigator for Hartman case defense teams during all three 1999 trials through early post-conviction relief challenges.
In July 2002, state employment and court records show, Bole began working in the Fairbanks office of the public defenders. After Wallace was arrested that Christmas following an Ester woman’s murder, Bole assisted his public defender, Geoffrey Wildridge.
The petition states “I1” repeatedly discussed what he heard from “J.W.” with “I2,” a former private investigator who became the agency’s chief investigator before losing his job because of ethical misconduct “unrelated” to the current action.
Norgard, who now lives in Port Clinton, Ohio, worked out of Anchorage as a class III public defender investigator starting in 2000. He advanced to an investigator IV in 2008 and held that position through April 2010.
Norgard is a “founding board member” of the Innocence Project and has “volunteered” time assisting as an investigator, Bill Oberly, the organization’s executive director, confirmed recently. He said Norgard lost his state job after misrepresenting the purpose of an out-of-state prison visit. “We disclosed that first,” he added.
By that account, Norgard’s affiliation with the Innocence Project overlapped his employment with the Public Defender Agency by roughly two years.
Bole is portrayed in the petition as a reluctant yet trusting source. “I1 thought that I2 had the same understanding of the need to keep client secrets, even after employment with the Public Defender agency terminated.”
Both Bole and Norgard were seen leaving Lyle’s courtroom Nov. 10, following a five-hour, closed-door evidentiary hearing on the admissibility of Wallace’s confidential statements. In the aftermath, Norgard confirmed that he testified. “I’m happy to come up and do it,” he said. “Anything I can do for this case.”
Holmes got double life sentences for killing two men in California in 2002. Wallace, his partner in that failed drug-ring takeover, testified against him. Questioned by a prison guard why he ever trusted Wallace, Holmes credited Wallace’s silence about the Hartman case.
That October 1997 night, Holmes later told the Innocence Project, he, Wallace and three classmates piled into his mom’s car and went cruising for drunken Alaska Natives to beat up. They chased a few who got away, he said, before jumping a “lone kid.”
As they sped away, Holmes claims, others in the car yelled at Wallace for kicking the boy’s head so many times.
Brian O’Donoghue, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor and former News-Miner reporter, has been researching the Hartman case with the help of journalism students since 2001. 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.