FAIRBANKS — The lawyer representing an inmate fighting to keep past discussions with a public defender secret met a Monday deadline for requesting confidential review of a Superior Court judge’s decision about claimed new evidence in John Hartman’s 1997 murder.
For more than a year, Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle has been considering a key piece of Alaska Innocence Project’s claimed new evidence warranting exoneration of the so-called Fairbanks Four. At issue is whether attorney-client privilege shields disclosure of whatever Jason Wallace may have said, years ago, to a public defender representing him in an unrelated case.
Open portions of the September 2013 filing call upon the court to allow consideration of Wallace’s privileged statements, which the Innocence Project asserts corroborate rapper William “Dolla-B” Holmes more recent sworn confession in the killing of Hartman.
Holmes, first in a December 2011 conversation with a prison guard and later though letters and an affidavit for the Innocence Project, claims that he, Wallace and three other Lathrop friends randomly attacked Hartman one night during the high school year.
On Nov. 17, Lyle circulated his tentative decision on the issue among the case parties. Wallace’s attorney, Jason Gazewood, filed motions requesting factual findings and a permanent stay, bidding to keep the records sealed while his client appeals. Gazewood’s first submission to the appellate court was rejected as incomplete.
Last week, the judge took that into consideration setting Monday’s deadline for Wallace to properly file for expedited review. The appellate court, in a related order, set Jan. 16 as the likely date its decision might be forthcoming.
Unless higher courts intervene, Lyle’s decision expires no later than Jan. 21.
Hartman, barely 15, was discovered early one Saturday, sprawled unconscious across pavement and in a shadowy section of 9th Avenue’s south curb, not far off Barnette Street. His face bore indications he had been stomped. By nightfall, police had confessions of kicking the unidentified victim from two young men— Eugene Vent, then just shy of 18, and George Frese, 19. By Sunday evening, when Hartman died, the pair faced murder and rape charges along with two former Howard Luke Academy friends, Marvin Roberts and Kevin Pease, both 19. Though all four later pleaded not guilty, they were convicted in a series of 1999 trials. Legal challenges have inched through Alaska courts ever since.
Prosecutors depicted Roberts, Howard Luke’s 1996 class salutatorian and one of the few in his circle with access to a car that night, as the driver for the group’s “spree of random violence.” He and Vent spurned plea offers for five-year sentences in return for testimony against the others. Both elected to stand trial and were sentenced to serve 33 and 39 years, respectively. Both are now scheduled for parole — this summer for Roberts and 2019 for Vent.
Pease, now 36 and Frese, 37, the pair held most accountable during sentencing, are scheduled for release in 2042 and 2050.
Like all four, Roberts has already served 17 years for the murder he insists he didn’t commit.
His mother, fresh back from a visit to Palmer Correctional Center, didn’t really expect this week’s filing deadline would deliver swift resolution. “I didn’t want to get my hopes up. It’s been too many times, “ Hazel Roberts Mayo said. “I’m just praying every day something good will come of this.”
Wallace and Holmes, meanwhile, are serving sentences ranging from 60 years to double-life terms following their failed drug-ring takeover, mounted 12 years ago this week, that left three dead in two states.
Holmes now says that he, Wallace and three other high school friends went cruising for drunk Alaska Natives to beat up, something they’d done a few times before. They chased a few who escaped before happening on the lone “kid” near Barnette Street.
The News-Miner is withholding the names of the other three former schoolmates Holmes identified as accomplices in Hartman’s murder. One faced the death penalty in an Oregon trial for two 1999 murders. He remains incarcerated with reported mental illness. The other two are on the street — one shows no criminal charges since 2006, the other sports a lengthy criminal rap sheet though no arrests since 2012. Their names are available in court files published elsewhere.
Wallace took part in at least some of this year’s closed hearings via teleconference from Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward. Lyle allowed select few others to participate in discussions of the sealed brief: attorneys representing the four men convicted in the Hartman case, Gazewood and, for a time, representatives of the Alaska Public Defender Agency.
Motion titles filed by the agency show public defenders battled for suppression of the sealed evidence. In late June, the judge dismissed the agency as a party, dropping its arguments from consideration.
In November, UAF Journalism filed a records request for copies of the public defenders’ rejected motions and related case correspondence. The request pointed out that Wallace has another attorney and that the agency lost its bid to intervene. Administration Commissioner Curtis Thayer, whose department oversees the public defenders, turned down the request, citing the agency head’s opinion the law doesn’t apply.
“Public Defender Agency case files are not public records under the Alaska Public Records Act,” wrote Quinlan Stiner in a Nov. 7 email included with the state’s rejection letter. “Accordingly, the agency will not be responding to the request.”
It was his first and only public statement on the agency’s interest in the Hartman case.
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.