FAIRBANKS — The four men seeking exoneration in the 1997 murder of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman won a procedural ruling this week when the Alaska Court of Appeals denied an effort to block the use of privileged attorney-client statements as evidence.
The ruling gives the four men the chance to corroborate an alternate account of the killing using information former Fairbanks resident Jason Wallace reportedly shared with his public defender. The information made its way to the exoneration effort’s legal team through a leak by an investigator who had been working for the Public Defender Agency.
The information has been under seal because information about a communication between an attorney and a client is confidential in most contexts.
The ruling won’t make the testimony public but may allow attorneys for the four convicted men to use it in their exoneration lawsuit. The Court of Appeals decision also authorized the lower court handling the proceedings to provide the sealed material to the Alaska Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals, which is responding to the exoneration claim.
A follow-up decision on Thursday by the lower court gave prosecutors a 20-day window after receiving the sealed filing in which to object to the use of the attorney-client information.
The convicted men hope to use the testimony in a civil trial now scheduled to begin Oct. 5.
Bill Oberly, the Alaska Innocence Project executive director and attorney who’s leading the exoneration effort, described the ruling as “helpful” on Friday.
“It’s certainly not a smoking gun, but it adds to an already sizable pile of evidence that these guys are innocent,” he said.
The appeals court ruling did include a concluding statement noting the right of Wallace to appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court to prevent his statements from being used in the exoneration case. Jason Gazewood, the Fairbanks attorney appointed to represent Wallace’s privacy interests, didn’t immediately return a phone call Friday afternoon.
The group of Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent and George Frese, known by supporters as the “Fairbanks Four,” were convicted in 1999 of murder following the downtown Fairbanks beating death of 15-year-old Hartman. All except Roberts, who is out on parole, remain jailed.
Since their convictions, the four have maintained they are innocent, and in 2013, they sued the state for their exoneration in a civil “post-conviction relief” case. In this suit, the group offered an alternate account of the killing. Their claim of innocence rests largely on an affidavit from former Fairbanks resident William Z. Holmes, who is serving a double-life sentence in California in an unrelated murder case.
On the night Hartman was beaten to death, Holmes said he was driving around Fairbanks looking for drunken Alaska Natives to assault with four of his Lathrop High School classmates. Holmes said they saw Hartman walking alone and that his classmates got out of the car and beat the boy up.
Holmes named Wallace and three classmates in an affidavit filed with the 2013 post-conviction relief lawsuit.
Challengers to Holmes’ account of the murder argue Holmes has a motive to name Wallace among the Lathrop students who he says killed Hartman. Wallace testified against Holmes in a 2002 drugs-related murder case for which Holmes is serving time.
To support Holmes’ account, Vent, Frese, Roberts and Pease also filed a brief under seal related to a statement reportedly made by Wallace about the Hartman murder. The brief has remained under seal as attorneys for the four convicted men and Wallace fight over whether communication between Wallace and his attorney can be used in the case.
In their ruling, issued Tuesday, Chief Judge David Mannheimer and Judge Marjorie Allard made it clear that the court was not ruling on the larger issue of whether the information Wallace reportedly told his public defender can be admitted as evidence, only that Wallace’s attorney-client privilege doesn’t automatically exclude it as evidence should it be offered.
“We caution the parties that our decision is limited to the issue of how attorney-client privilege applies to the facts of this case. We express no opinion as to whether other legal rules (such as the hearsay rule) may bar the admission of testimony or other forms of evidence describing the content or nature of J.W.’s purported statements,” the ruling reads.
The evidentiary hearsay rule could be an issue, as the appeals court suggested, because the testimony reportedly comes not directly from Wallace’s attorney but from a former public defender investigator who became a founding member of the Alaska Innocence Project.
In a different issue in the same case this week, a Fairbanks judge heard arguments Thursday over whether it was fair of prosecutors to not bring up the Holmes’ statement earlier.
The Fairbanks District Attorney’s office was alerted to Holmes’ statement about the Hartman case in 2011 when Holmes told a prison chapel officer in California that he was involved in the killing. An assistant district attorney passed the tip to a Fairbanks police officer but didn’t tell the attorneys for the four convicted men.
At Thursday’s hearing, Assistant Attorney General James Fayette defended that 2011 decision. He said prosecutors don’t have an obligation to hand over this kind of exculpatory evidence in a case where a defendant has been convicted and exhausted his appeals. Prosecutors are entitled to review the new material and evaluate whether it must be turned over. In this case, Holmes’ statement didn’t need to be passed on, he said.
“The prosecutor in 2011 was aware that the statement was made in a jailhouse environment, one convict pointing the finger at the other, so to speak,” he said.
These types of statements, he said, are “inherently untrustworthy.”
Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle didn’t immediately issue a ruling on this issue.
Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.