FAIRBANKS — The state and four men who have served 17 years each for John Hartman’s murder are gearing up for a non-jury hearing on rapper William “Dolla B” Holmes’ confession and other claimed evidence being offered as reason to exonerate them.
Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle will weigh the evidence alone during October’s hearing on post-conviction relief actions brought on behalf of the so-called “Fairbanks Four” — George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent.
Still unresolved are “privilege claims” shielding statements by inmate Jason Wallace about Hartman’s murder. Like Holmes, Wallace attended Lathrop High School. They later partnered in three drug-ring murders that landed both in prison for decades to come.
After a yearlong battle behind closed doors, Wallace has turned to the Alaska Court of Appeals for help in keeping private his past statements to public defender agency lawyers and staff.
Both sides submitted their witness lists by Lyle’s deadline Thursday. The names preview what the judge may hear about various people and events related to the death of Hartman, a white youth whose crumpled body was found in the shadows of Ninth Avenue near Barnette Street in downtown Fairbanks early on Saturday, Oct. 11, 1997.
Medics got the “man down” call at 2:50 a.m. The teen was breathing, the ambulance report notes, but his pupils were dilated and unresponsive. Head injuries and curling movements carried indications of a coma.
The unidentified teen’s condition prompted TV bulletins, unusual for Fairbanks at the time. That night his mother, the late Evalyn Thomas, identified the 15-year-old in Fairbanks Memorial Hospital’s ICU as John Gilbert Hartman. He died Sunday evening.
The two weeks Lyle set aside to reconsider the convictions overlap with what will be the crime’s 18th anniversary.
Sifting names for clues
Twenty alibi witnesses, including 11 identified as testifying for Roberts, are among 59 named on the list put forward by the Alaska Innocence Project, Vent’s longtime attorney Colleen Libbey, and four other lawyers from an Anchorage firm now assisting their team.
Roberts, then 19, owned the blue Dodge hatchback local police say was used as the getaway car for the fatal assault and an earlier robbery. Dance partners and others who recall his presence at a raucous Alaska Native wedding reception during the crucial hour have long disputed the verdicts.
Another nine from that list, headlined by Holmes and the California prison guard who first reported Holmes’ own confession to the killing in December 2011, are described as supporting the inmate’s account of a murderous joyride following an impromptu gathering of Lathrop High friends.
Two of the witnesses for the four convicted men are current or past investigators for the Alaska Public Defender Agency. Thomas Bole, a current agency employee, and Richard Nordmark both took the stand in November during Lyle’s five-hour closed hearing on Wallace’s leaked statements about the Hartman case.
For the state, Special Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman named 66 potential witnesses, with no descriptions of expected testimony.
Some are familiar players in the state’s original case: former detectives Aaron Ring, the lead interrogator, and Leonard Brown, evidence custodian at the time; current Chief Detective James Geier; former District Attorney Jeff O’Bryant, the prosecutor for all of the 1999 Hartman murder trials.
Separate trials were held because two of the suspects, Vent and Frese, then 17 and 20, respectively, drunkenly confessed under questioning the day Hartman was found. One or the other would testify for the state, then-District Attorney Harry Davis assured grand jurors. Instead, all four suspects pleaded innocent.
Separate juries handed down convictions. The four received prison sentences ranging from 33 years for Roberts to 77 years for Frese.
Both lists of witnesses for the upcoming hearing contain names of people who testified in those trials of 15 years ago.
Christopher Sean Kelly, the oldest of Hartman’s three brothers, looks forward to testifying for the state.
“Maybe we can get some people believing the truth,” Kelly stated in a text message Saturday.
Kelly contends Vent essentially confessed to him during their January 1998 confrontation inside Fairbanks Correctional Center. A month later, Kelly broke Frese’s nose in the jail’s hallway, provoked by what he took as continuing guilty looks and snickers from the suspects. He’s bitter that Roberts is scheduled for parole this summer, followed by Vent in 2016.
Among new names on the state’s list: April Monroe Frick, organizer of the Free the Fairbanks Four social media campaign.
In common with the other side, 10 or more of the state’s potential witnesses carry ties circling back to Holmes, Wallace and the latter’s as-yet-undisclosed statements about the case made under attorney-client privilege.
In the confession that focused broader attention on longstanding assertions of innocence from the men convicted, Holmes said the incident started with a page from a girl inviting him to drop by her apartment. “I remember it was already dark outside,” Holmes wrote the Innocence Project in a letter Aug. 20, 2012, “when me and my friend Shelmar Johnson went over to the apartment from my mother’s home in Birchwood on Fort Wainwright Army Base.”
According to that hand-written account, which Holmes reaffirmed in a typed affidavit, that party is where he ran into three other Lathrop friends who later took part in a murderous joyride. “Marquise, I don’t know his last name, Rashad (sic) Brown and Jason Wallace. We all stayed for about an hour then decided to go downtown and have some fun.”
Attorneys for the Fairbanks Four list three potential witnesses from that impromptu party.
The state’s list names Shelmar Johnson and Marquis Pennington, two of the classmates Holmes now claims as accomplices in Hartman’s murder. Neither Johnson nor Pennington has been charged in the case.
Rashan Brown, the other classmate Holmes places at that party and the ride that followed, was later convicted of an Oregon couple’s shooting deaths. An investigator who worked that case is expected to testify that she came across information about Hartman’s murder “consistent with Holmes’ account.” It’s noted she passed the information to Fairbanks police.
Holmes puts himself behind the wheel of his mother’s maroon red Tempo as he and his friends chased a few drunks who got away.
Hartman, who lived on Ninth Avenue, is known to have shared a cab back downtown with friends after getting sick at a party at Noah’s Rainbow Inn.
By Holmes account, he was simply in the wrong place, wrong time.
“While at a stop light or stop sign, awaiting to turn left onto Airport Way,” the inmate wrote, “we see a white boy walking alone, from the direction of Airport Way. We all get excited and say, we got one!”
Other named witness: Scott Davison and a former girlfriend. Davison’s 2011 account of Wallace bragging about the murder back in high school predates Holmes’ contact with the Innocence Project by roughly a year.
Among the new names: a pair of former troopers now with the Cold Case Unit who visited Holmes in a California prison as part of the state’s review.
One noticeable omission from both lists: Arlo Olson, star witness for the state in all of the Hartman trials.
Yet to be heard
Both sides lists Wallace among their witnesses. What’s public about Wallace’s effort to keep his past statements private shows he lost the first round this winter.
“… was the Superior Court correct,” appellate justices recently asked parties opposing Wallace’s bid for secrecy, “when it ruled that those statements are nevertheless admissible, even over J.W.’s objection, in post-conviction relief litigation between the four (Applicants) and the State of Alaska?”
Witness lists are required under discovery rules so both sides can prepare. The judge’s permission is required to add additional names, so lawyers frequently cast a broad net. Both sides hedged their bets about future discoveries asserting the right to call any witness named by the other.
Not everyone named will testify. Not everyone agreed, or was even aware, they could be called to testify.
Editor’s note: The witness lists includes reporter Brian O’Donoghue, named as a potential witness for the four convicted men, and News-Miner Managing Editor Rod Boyce, who is listed by the state.
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.