FAIRBANKS — State prosecutors are still waiting for first peek at the sealed brief alleged to support a California inmate’s confession in the John Hartman murder case.
Potential impacts on reputations and other legal considerations surrounding this portion of the Alaska Innocence Project’s Sept. 25 filing warrant careful handling, Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle said Thursday afternoon at the Rabinowitz Courthouse in Fairbanks.
“That’s the wood that needs to be sawed,” the judge said in this first hearing on exoneration bids for Marvin Roberts, 36; Kevin Pease, 35; and George Frese, 37, three of the four incarcerated for fatally assaulting 15-year-old Hartman early Oct. 11, 1997. Eugene Vent, 34, the other member of the so-called Fairbanks Four, has a different lawyer representing him in a separate, ongoing, post-conviction action initiated in 2003.
The sealed pages are portrayed in the court file as further substantiation of the confession the Innocence Project collected from former Fairbanks resident William Z. Holmes, 34. All that’s public is this: “The nature and specifics of the next statements made by Jason Wallace is the subject of the sealed motion filed with this application. Applicant contends these statements are no longer confidential and asks the court to so rule and make them part of this application.”
Assistant Attorney General Adrienne Bachman, of the Office of Special Prosecutions, confirmed in court Thursday that the state hasn’t yet seen those specifics. Attempts to gather information through her public defender contacts haven’t been successful, she said.
Wallace, 33, is one of four former Lathrop buddies Holmes now claims were along for the ride the night, he says, they cruised downtown for drunk Natives to beat up and happened upon Hartman. Five years later, Holmes and Wallace landed behind bars, where both remain, for their parts in an interstate drug-ring murder conspiracy that left three dead in two states.
Wallace, who confessed to murdering an Ester woman as part of the plot, was defended by the Alaska Public Defender Agency.
Lyle, who inherited the case Nov. 8, pledged to finish researching precedents and rule on the “thorny” issues raised by the brief’s confidential disclosures within a month. The first two judges appointed voluntarily withdrew; the third, removed through a peremptory challenge by Bill Oberly, the project’s attorney and executive director.
Supporters of the Fairbanks Four have railed about delays since the state requested, then received, a six-month extension of the 45 days allowed for responding to post-conviction relief motions. Participating by teleconference Thursday, Oberly sought the judge’s clarification that the state’s current May 15 deadline still applies.
It does, the judge said.
Pointing to public interest in the case, prosecutor Bachman later paused outside Courtroom 401 and patiently fielded questions from local TV reporters about other aspects testing Alaska statutes and the Constitution.
“In my research, I haven’t found other cases in Alaska that have made a claim of actual innocence and had that litigated,” she said. “It’s happened federally many times. It’s happened in other states. Alaska’s going to have to create the law that applies to this kind of case.”
Fairbanks’ own Attorney General Michael Geraghty knows the verdicts haven’t put to rest local questions about Hartman’s 1997 murder. In a letter to UAF Journalism last fall, he acknowledged the potential value in making public legal arguments that might otherwise stay private.
“… if the contents relate to the guilt or innocence of anyone as it relates to the Hartman murder case,” Geraghty wrote Nov. 27, “that information should be made part of the record. However, that decision ultimately rests with the court and we will respect whatever decision the court makes.”
UAF Journalism professor Brian O’Donoghue, a former News-Miner reporter and editor, has been researching the Hartman case with the help of students since 2001. His seven-part series examining the case, “Decade of Doubt: The John Hartman Murder,” appeared in the News-Miner in July 2008. O’Donoghue is not affiliated with the Alaska Innocence Project or Fairbanks Four social media campaign. Throughout the years, results of UAF Journalism’s public service investigation have been shared with all interested parties, including tribal organizations, the Fairbanks Police Department and the district attorney’s office.