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LONELY BENCH: Judge Paul Lyle
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A shorter version of this story appeared in the Jan. 7, 2015 issue of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
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FAIRBANKS —A sworn confession and other evidence Alaska Innocence Project put forward over a year ago, bidding to overturn murder convictions against the Fairbanks Four, will finally be heard in open court this coming October. The two weeks set aside for those arguments coincide with the 18th anniversary of teenage victim John Hartman’s fatal ’97 beating.
“I believe that the sealed matter is far enough along that I can confidently set a trial date,” Judge Paul Lyle said Tuesday, speaking from his bench.
Rabinowitz Courtroom 401 was largely empty as Lyle discussed scheduling details, via teleconference, with the special prosecutor heading the state’s investigation, lawyers representing the group convicted of Hartman’s murder, and an attorney the judge appointed to defend the interests of an inmate whose privilege claims prompted secret motions and closed-doors discussions all last year.
That “sealed matter,” referred to by the judge, was submitted in support of Alaska Innocence Project’s post-conviction relief filing of September 2013. What’s public about the ex parte argument shows the Innocence Project asks for a waiver of attorney-client privilege shielding statements made, years ago, by a former Fairbanks man, Jason Wallace, to a public defender then representing him in an unrelated murder conspiracy that left three dead in two states.
Open portions of the file characterize Wallace’s confidential statements as corroborating the main thrust of the Innocence Project’ case, a new Hartman murder confession from William Z. Holmes, a former Lathrop High classmate and partner in their failed 2002 drug-ring takeover.
Holmes, who is serving double life in California, now says that he, Wallace and three other Lathrop friends were out cruising for Natives to beat up the night they jumped a lone kid later identified as Hartman.
Justice initially seemed swift
Hartman, only weeks past 15, died the next evening without recovering consciousness. By then, police had 17-year-old Vent’s drunken confession. Similar damning admissions came from George Frese, who had showed up at the hospital seeking treatment for a foot hurt in a fight he said he was too drunk to recall. Yearbook photos of the Howard Luke Academy basketball team yielded two more suspects, Marvin Roberts and Kevin Pease.
By that Monday, police declared the murder solved with the arrests of Roberts, Vent, Pease and Frese, all of whom were later convicted and sentenced, respectively, to serve 33- to 79- years behind bars. Roberts is scheduled for parole later this year. Vent, likewise, is scheduled for parole in 2016. All four, now in the mid-to late 30s, have spent the past 17 years incarcerated for a crime they insist they did not commit.
Those who defend those Hartman verdicts point out that Wallace, now incarcerated in Seward, got off with 60-years after testifying against his old school pal.
From that perspective, Holmes belated confession smells of payback.
Lyle, meanwhile, has spent more than a year cloistered with select parties behind closed doors, chewing through nettlesome legal issues posed in the sealed file.
Alaska’s Public Defender Agency had no current client in the case, yet sought entry with sealed motions carrying titles opposing disclosure of Wallace’s privileged statements. Last summer the judge dropped Public Defenders from the case, striking the agency’s motions. Wallace’s attorney, Jason Gazewood, revived those arguments for his client.
Nov. 10, Lyle held a closed evidentiary hearing on the sealed file. With state troopers guarding the doors of Courtroom 401, the judge took several hours of testimony from current and former public defender investigators, one whom assisted the Innocence Project’s case research on the Fairbanks Four.
Following that hearing, Lyle circulated his ‘tentative decision” about the sealed file’s admissibility.
Gazewood urged Lyle to hold off releasing his decision until the Court of Appeals reviewed his client’s arguments against disclosure. The judge responded by issuing a “brief stay” that expires at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 21.
After initial botched attempts, on Monday, Jan 5, Gazewood filed a petition for appellate review of Lyle’s pending decision.
Bill Oberly, the Innocence project’s executive director, and Colleen Libby, Eugene Vent’s longtime attorney, have 10 days to contest Wallace’s arguments for maintaining the secrecy over whatever he may have told his former public defender about the Hartman case.
All three members of Alaska’s Court of Appeals will take part deciding whether to take up Wallace’s petition, said Beth Adams, the appellate court’s deputy chief clerk. “It’s discretionary,” she said, explaining that a ruling is expected on or before the stay expires Jan. 21. “If they grant this, it means it goes into full briefing, which means the trial court would no longer have full jurisdiction, at least over this issue.”
Shift in the logjam
Lyle, for his part, made it clear on Tuesday he isn’t waiting.
The wording of the “brief stay” now in effect indicates Lyle’s patience with Wallace’s bid to preserve old secrets is running out. “A stay of trial court proceedings is not automatic,” he noted, “when the Court of Appeals grants a petition: An open-ended stay cannot be granted when no entitlement has been established under the facts and law.”
Come that deadline, unless the appellate court orders otherwise, Lyle’s decision about that “first log” that needed sawing, as he once put it, will “automatically” become public.
“If the affected person,” as the judge refers to Wallace, “wishes a stay beyond that date and time, the affected person will have to file a stay that addresses the legal arguments for a stay and the facts supporting a stay under those standards.”
If that motion lands on his desk, Lyle wrote, it will be briefed and decided on an expedited basis.
The judge put the case parties on notice Tuesday he’s now drafting an order setting deadlines for discovery and a list of witnesses. Those deadlines will be up for discussion at another hearing Jan. 20.
At least one of the lawyers appears to be a short timer. Pressed by the judge, Gazewood agreed that his client, Wallace, likely wouldn’t require representation during those upcoming October proceedings.
O’Donoghue is a journalism professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks. He and his students have been covering the Hartman murder case as a public interest project since 2001.
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