Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of weekly summaries of events in the ongoing court hearing seeking exoneration of the four men convicted in the 1997 murder of Fairbanks teen John Hartman.
The first five days of a lawsuit to reverse the murder convictions of the men known as the “Fairbanks Four” has included a wealth of information, interviews and testimony from more than a dozen witnesses.
The lawsuit, expected to take a month to hear, is an effort by the Alaska Innocence Project to free George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent. The four were convicted in 1999 in three separate trials for fatally beating 15-year-old John Hartman in downtown Fairbanks in 1997.
The first week of the exoneration effort in Fairbanks Superior Court largely focused on building the case that a second group of men killed Hartman. Those men include Jason Wallace, William Holmes, Shelmar Johnson, Marquez Pennington and Rashan Brown and is based on the confessions of Holmes and Wallace.
Three of the five are incarcerated for other crimes.
Here’s a brief look at how the first week unfolded.
The five were implicated in
Hartman’s death by the 2012 confession of Holmes, who is incarcerated in California serving a double-life sentence for killing two people as part of an interstate drug-murder conspiracy with Wallace.
Holmes, temporarily relocated to Fairbanks, testified on the first day of the proceedings and retold a story that largely matched his written confession that he and the others were driving around downtown Fairbanks looking for “drunk Natives” to harass, a cruel pastime Holmes said he and his friends had enjoyed on a few previous occasions.
He said he was the driver and that the passengers told him to pull over. He said the others got out near Barnette Street and Ninth Avenue and assaulted the lone teen, who turned out to be Hartman.
Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle denied a request to allow the three incarcerated members of the Fairbanks Four — Frese, Pease and Vent — to attend the lawsuit in Fairbanks, even if they paid their own way.
“The expense is high, and taking six troopers off of duty from other parts of the state is asking too much,” Lyle said in denying the request.
Roberts was released earlier this year on parole and has been attending the hearings.
The court spent the rest of the day hearing the video testimony of California prison chapel officer Joseph Torquato, who originally heard Holmes’ confession and later coaxed him into coming forward.
The court heard the video testimony of Wallace, who refused to answer nearly every question by exercising his Fifth Amendment right to protection against self-incrimination.
Much of the rest of the day heard from attendees of a party held the night of the Hartman attack and which was allegedly attended by Wallace, Holmes and the other young men named as attacking Hartman. The testimony largely served to put Holmes, Wallace and Brown together at the party and show that they left together in Holmes’ maroon Ford Tempo.
The court heard the in-person testimony of Scott Davison, who said he heard Wallace confess to the crime while they pair skipped school together a few days after Hartman was killed. Davison’s story had similar details to how Holmes’ described Wallace’s behavior.
The last day of this week shifted from building the evidence that Wallace, Holmes and the others killed Hartman and to the efforts of the Fairbanks Police Department and the district attorney’s office to build an allegedly faulty case against Pease, Roberts, Frese and Vent.
That focused on Arlo Olson, who said he saw a robbery assault that occurred not long before the Hartman assault. Even though Olson was drunk at the time and was about 500 feet from the robbery site, his testimony was used by the prosecution in 1999 to identify Pease, Roberts, Frese and Vent as embarking on a violent crime spree that ended with Hartman’s death.
Olson, who soon after the 1999 convictions attempted to take back his testimony, said Friday that he had been manipulated and threatened by Fairbanks police Detective Aaron Ring and then-prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant into becoming the star witness the original trials hinged on.
Investigator defends leak of statement
While Holmes has been cooperating with the attorneys representing Pease, Roberts, Frese and Vent, Wallace has been mostly uncooperative.
Still, thanks to a leak in 2003, Wallace’s account of that night has become public and is part of the trial.
Wallace allegedly confessed when talking to Thomas Bole, a former public defender agency investigator who had previously worked as an investigator on behalf of one of the men originally convicted. Bole had gone to talk with Wallace in 2003 about an unrelated crime.
Bole said Wallace, unprompted, made an emotional confession that he, Holmes and Brown had killed Hartman.
“He believed he was the driver of the car of two other individuals who assaulted John Hartman,” Bole said during in-person testimony on Friday.
When asked about how Wallace was acting during the event, Bole said it was emotional and made a lasting impact on him.
“Very, very emotional, crying at times. He seemed very remorseful and also about his present crime,” he said.
Alaska Assistant Attorney General Adrienne Bachman, who’s working to uphold the murder convictions, questioned Bole’s conflict of interest having previously worked on the Hartman case.
“There is the possibility sir, is it not, that when you spoke with Mr. Wallace you heard what you wanted to hear?”
“No,” Bole said.
“No,” Bole reaffirmed. “Not at all.”
Bachman’s questioning established that Bole felt strongly about the Hartman case. He was later given the opportunity to address it by Dorsey & Whitney Attorney Bob Bundy, who is representing Frese.
“It makes it sound like I would just pick someone,” Bole said. “Jason Wallace told me what he told me and I’m never going to forget that. He wasn’t some random guy I picked to blame it on.”
Police Department inaction
Much of the theory that a second group of young men was responsible for killing Hartman comes from Holmes’ confession in 2012.
But in 2011, Holmes shared the same information with a prison chapel officer in California, where Holmes is serving a double-life sentence for killing two people.
Torquato, the correctional officer, urged Holmes to come forward with the information. When Holmes refused, Torquato wrote a memo to the Fairbanks Police Department and the district attorney’s office.
That’s where it sat for years. No one from the state checked on the memo until the Alaska Innocence Project launched its legal action.
The lack of action was described as an honest mistake by Fairbanks police Detective Chris Nolan, whose videotaped deposition was played in court on Wednesday. He acknowledged receiving the Torquato memo, setting it aside and meaning to research the Hartman case before launching into an investigation.
He never got around to it before retiring a few years later, he said.
“I set it aside and I never saw it again until they did the announcement here at the courthouse,” he said. “I saw that announcement and went, “Oh, crap.” Because this was sitting right next to my computer. I thought, ‘Oh, my god.’”
The lawsuit proceedings are expected to last a month and are scheduled to resume Monday.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.
Correction: This article has been changed to reflect the following correction.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Rashan Brown.