The Fairbanks Four Exoneration Case Now In The Hands Of Superior Court Judge


By Black Powder | Red Power Media, Staff

Fairbanks Four seek exoneration — case now in the hands of Superior Court Judge.

Closing arguments were heard earlier this month in a five-week hearing to consider innocence declaration requests by Kevin Pease, George Frese, Eugene Vent and Marvin Roberts, the 4 Native American men known as the Fairbanks Four — convicted of the 1997 murder of John Hartman.

The 4 men were sentenced for the fatal beating of 15-year-old Hartman, 18 years ago in Fairbanks, Alaska and have been behind bars ever since.

Following conviction, Pease was sentenced to 77 years, Frese 75, Vent 39, and Roberts 33.

Supporters believe the Fairbanks Four were wrongfully convicted, thanks to civil rights violations, racism and shoddy police work — others citing allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and coercion.


A Fairbanks Four banner at the Alaska Federation of Natives Conference, Oct. 15, 2015. (Photo by Mikko Wilson/KTOO)

The Fairbanks Four petitions focus on alternative Hartman murder suspects William Holmes and Jason Wallace, 2 men already imprisoned for unrelated 2002 drug killings, who peg the Hartman attack on one another.

The center of the legal effort to have Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle exonerate the Fairbanks Four rests on the claim that the “real killers” have confessed.

According to The Daily Beast, in September 2013, the Fairbanks Four landed a new break in their fight for exoneration.

The Alaska Innocence Project filed affidavits claiming a different group of high-schoolers had killed Hartman. One of the men, William Holmes, said he was a junior at Lathrop High School when he and some classmates cruised around seeking drunk natives to beat up and rob.

Instead, the crew jumped a “white boy,” Holmes wrote from a California prison, where he is serving two life sentences for fatally shooting two men on Christmas Eve 2002, the Alaska Dispatch News reported.

“Mentally, I have lived as if that night never happened… I am sure the boy who was chased down and stomped that night was John Hartman,” wrote Holmes, who said he was the getaway driver.

William Holmes testifies during an evidentiary hearing for the Fairbanks Four to try to prove their innocence, Monday, Oct. 5, 2015 at the Rabinowitz Courthouse in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Four, George Frese, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent and Marvin Roberts were convicted in the killing of 15-year old John Hartman 18 years ago. Roberts was released on parole this summer, the other three men remain in jail. Eric Engman / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner via AP

William Holmes testifies during an evidentiary hearing for the Fairbanks Four to try to prove their innocence, Monday, Oct. 5, 2015 at the Rabinowitz Courthouse in Fairbanks, Alaska. Eric Engman / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner via AP

Holmes said Jason Wallace, his buddy and future cocaine-dealing partner, mercilessly stomped Hartman. (Both the former friends have pointed fingers at each other in Hartman’s beating.)

A second affidavit from a former Lathrop student, Scott Davison, claims Wallace copped to the crime one day while they smoked marijuana. “Jason then said if we told anyone about the Hartman assault, he would kill both of us,” Davison said, according to the News-Miner.

Wallace is serving a 70-year sentence for killing an Ester, Alaska woman with a hammer. Both he and Holmes committed the murders for which they’re serving time in an attempted takeover of a cocaine-trafficking business, the News-Miner reported.

Judge Paul Lyle is considering their involvement as part of the latest post-conviction proceedings. An exoneration or new trial requires “clear and convincing” evidence, he said. (Lyle has indicated he isn’t ruling until July, so he has time to carefully weigh all evidence and transcripts associated with the case.)

During the hearing, the state argued that Holmes has a reason to lie about Wallace’s involvement in the Hartman killing. Wallace’s testimony helped put Holmes behind bars for life for the drug-murder conspiracy.

Wallace, who was granted immunity in the Hartman case, testified for the state that he hadn’t heard about Hartman’s brutal beating until recently and had nothing to do with it.

At closing arguments, Fairbanks Four attorney Kate Demarest said Holmes’s story was corroborated by 12 witnesses and more solid than Wallace’s denial, according to the News-Miner.

It’s Wallace who has more to lose by confessing to another murder, even if he can’t be prosecuted, Demarest said. He’s eligible for parole in 2025 and a criminal disclosure could affect the parole board’s decision.

State attorney Adrienne Bachman painted a much different picture in her closing comments, arguing that Holmes and Wallace had no role in the Hartman attack, and are using it to leverage leniency in their own imprisonment, a blame game Bachman maintains has become one of the tools the Fairbanks Four are wielding to challenge their own murder convictions

“We all understand what the agenda is here,” Bachman said. “The agenda is to somehow undermine the court’s confidence that due process was served in the four trials, the three trials in which 36 jurors deliberated and came to unanimous verdicts based on the highest standard of proof in the land.”

Judge Paul Lyle said his decision in the case likely won’t come for several months, reported The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

“It’s going to be a long process,” Lyle said. “We’ve had five weeks at trial. I have a lot of decisions I need to make.”

Judges typically have six months to hand down a ruling after taking a case under advisement.

Here are some of the main events in the case during the past two years.

September 2013 — Interior Alaska Native leaders and supporters of Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent announce the new court case at a press conference in front of the Rabinowitz Courthouse in downtown Fairbanks. The filling includes an affidavit from Bill Holmes in support of the alternate suspect theory.

October 2013 — Two Alaska State Troopers from the cold case unit and prosecutor Adrianne Bachman travel to Fairbanks to begin investigating the claims made in the new lawsuit. They visit the crime scenes and records at the Fairbanks Police Department.

January 2014 — Cold case investigators discover that Fairbanks police were already aware of the Bill Holmes statement before the Alaska Innocence Project because California prison guard Joseph Torquato faxed a memo to the police about it in December, 2011. The petitioners have argued that the police’s failure to pass on this exculpatory information amounts to prosecutorial misconduct.

November 2014 — Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle holds a closed-door hearing about the testimony of Tom Bole, a former Public Defender Agency investigator who testified that Wallace told him in 2003 that he was involved in the Hartman murder. Lyle rules that Wallace’s attorney-client privilege shouldn’t keep the petitioners from using Bole’s testimony in this case.

May 2015 — Marvin Roberts is released on parole. His three co-petitioners remain in jail, serving sentences that range from 38 to 79 years.

October 2015 — A five week evidentiary hearing in this case takes place. The hearing ended Tuesday [Nov 10] with closing arguments.

January 2016 — Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle plans to begin formally reviewing case. He will first read the more than 10,000 pages of trial transcripts from the 1999 trials of Frese, Vent and the joint trial of Pease and Roberts.

July 2016 — Six month deadline for Lyle to make a ruling in this case. The judge’s pay could be withheld if he hasn’t made his ruling within six months. He indicated, he’s willing to go without pay and spend extra time reviewing this case if he feels he needs it.

Marvin Roberts flashes four fingers in a sign of solidarity of for the Fairbanks Four following his address at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage on Oct. 17. Mark Thiessen | The Associated Press

Marvin Roberts flashes four fingers in a sign of solidarity of for the Fairbanks Four following his address at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage on Oct. 17. Mark Thiessen | The Associated Press

Marvin Roberts, released to a halfway house during the summer, attended the hearing in person, while Pease, Vent and Frese listened by teleconference from behind bars, except for the days on which they testified that they did not kill Hartman. 

Case timeline by Fairbanks Daily News‑Miner