Appeals Court Reveals Second Murder Confession in Hartman Murder

In a ruling made public today, the Alaska Appellate Court has shot down the efforts of inmate Jason Wallace to keep his confession to the murder of John Hartman out of court.

Although the exact statements of Jason Wallace related to his participation in the 1997 murder for which the Fairbanks Four were convicted and remain incarcerated have yet to be revealed to the public, the ruling confirms that Jason Wallace made statements to “an investigator working for his attorney which, if true, would tend to exculpate four defendants who were previously convicted of the same crime that J.W. described.” Wallace, currently incarcerated for another murder and represented by Fairbanks attorney Jason Gazewood who was most recently in the news after being held in contempt of court, has fought the release of his confession since the Alaska Innocence Project entered them under seal as part of a Post Conviction Relief filing based on actual innocence on behalf of the Fairbanks Four. Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, and George Frese were arrested and convicted of the Hartman murder in October of 1997. the four young men were convicted despite a wealth of alibi evidence and with no physical evidence of any kind linking them to the victim or each other.

Jason Wallace has been fingered as an alternate suspect in the Hartman killing since at least 2004, but a substantial statement related to his involvement proved elusive. Finally, in a sworn affidavit to the Alaska Innocence Project dated in 2008, high school acquaintance of Wallace Scott Davison detailed the statements about the killing Wallace had made to him just days after the murder. Davison was absolutely bullied and berated by the State of Alaska for coming forward.

According to oral arguments made during a recent misconduct hearing on the case, in 2011 William Holmes, a Fairbanks man serving a double life sentence in a California prison for unrelated murders, developed a relationship with correctional officer and chaplain Joseph Torquato. Holmes told Torquato about his life in Alaska and his troubled past. On December 5th, 2011 Holmes detailed to Torquato his role in the stomping murder of a young boy for which four innocent men were imprisoned. Torquato was so compelled by the statements of William Holmes that he went home the same night and used the internet to research similar murders in Alaska. He came upon the Hartman case, and the next day when he saw Holmes he asked him, “Does the name Hartman mean anything to you?” to which Holmes replied, “Do you mean John Hartman?” The inmate confirmed that the murder he had confessed to the previous day was indeed the Hartman murder. Torquato implored Holmes to come forward to Fairbanks authorities, but he refused.

The correctional officer then took the information to his supervisor and together the two composed what is now referred to in proceedings as the “Torquato Memo.” Torquato sent the written account of the confession by Holmes to the Fairbanks Police department. They forwarded it to the District Attorney’s office. Ultimately, neither party took action.

The State’s failure to disclose the confession of Holmes when first received was the subject of the July 30th hearing in Fairbanks Superior Court, where the state argued that the wording of the Code of Ethics as written in 2011 should have allowed the prosecutor to withhold the confession, although they conceded that such conduct would not be acceptable in 2014. They further argued that because the Fairbanks Four had been convicted by 2011 that they did not have any remaining constitutional due process rights.

Counsel for the Fairbanks Four argued that there were indeed state and federal constitutional rights violated through the withholding of the Holmes confession, and that the ethical obligation to disclose the confession was so clear that it was “offensive to justice” to have withheld it. Attorneys for the Fairbanks Four discussed the harm that had come to the four men’s case as a result of the State’s decision to hide the Holmes confession. Among other things, they cited the 2014 deaths of two witnesses who had heard confessions from Marquez Pennington. Had the State revealed the confession as obligated, the argued, the witnesses may have been alive to testify that Marquez Pennington made admissions in the case as well. This small comment was the first reference to yet a third confession – the confession of Marquez Pennington. 

A decision as to whether the actions of the District Attorney violated the rights of the men known as the Fairbanks Four is forthcoming from Judge Paul Lyle.

Despite the State decision to withhold the confession, it eventually came out. Holmes confessed directly to the Alaska Innocence Project. In 2012, Holmes mailed a detailed and handwritten confession to his role in the killing of John Hartman in which he named Jason Holmes, Marquez Pennington, Shelmar Johnson, and Rashan Brown. The five teenagers, according to Holmes, went out that night hoping to assault “drunk Natives” for fun, and after being unable to find the ideal victim happened upon John Hartman. According to Holmes Jason Wallace was the ringleader of the vicious assault, but all four of the other men he named attacked and killed Hartman, while Holmes served as driver. (Read the Holmes confession HERE). IMG_7092

The Holmes confession provided answers long-sought by the Fairbanks Four and their families and friends who for nearly two decades have insisted on their innocence. It also corroborated the affidavit of Scott Davison, and became the centerpiece of the 2013 Alaska Innocence Project filing for Post Conviction Relief on behalf of the men. Also contained in the filing were statements made by Jason Wallace said to “corroborate the confession of William Holmes.”

The statements by Wallace, potentially subject to attorney-client privilege, were filed under seal and it was never known if they would be made public. Jason Wallace can, and likely will, appeal the decision to release his confession to the Alaska Supreme Court, although it seems unlikely that they would opt to hear the case. The decision by the Court of Appeals only applies to the narrow issue of whether or not the judge CAN consider it for admission. It is still possible that Judge Lyle will not declare it admissible. It is possible that he may admit it and keep it confidential.

This wins a battle, but the war is long.

story1Whatever the legal meanderings of this case through the maze of a truly sick justice system, we have as much faith today as we did when we wrote our first post. The first time anyone ever used the term “Fairbanks Four” we used it with this promise beside it  –  “This is story of injustice, a plea for help, for understanding, and above all a story of faith in the power of stories, of the truth. Writing this blog is an act of faith, a testimony to the power of the truth, spoken, read. We may not be experts in journalism, in law, or many other things. But the contributors here come from Alaska, from a culture that has a long tradition of storytelling, and a belief that the truth holds incredible power. This is a long story, and we will have to tell it the old way, the slow way, in pieces as they come.”

This story is unfolding as we knew it would and know it will because we have known the ending since the beginning. This blog is still a story, told in pieces as they come. Today, this is a new piece of a long story. This movement is still a plea for help. We need you to share this story and do what you can to right a wrong.

Above all, it is still an act of faith and we have absolute faith in the good of people like you and the power of the truth.

A Life Split in Half – Happy Birthday Eugene Vent

TEugeneoday, Eugene Vent has officially spent more years as an innocent man in prison than he spent in the outside world.

Seventeen Novembers have passed since Eugene Vent turned 18 inside a holding cell in Fairbanks Correctional Center. He was kept in isolation because of the very real and persistent threats of violence from other inmates. Jail records recall how inmates would lean up to the small slat in his door and whisper graphic threats to Vent, alone for 23 hours per day in the cell. Imagine how it must have felt, alone and away from family for the first time in his young life, on a birthday considered the passage into adulthood, in a concrete room with faceless voices that whispered a hundred ways to die.

“You know,” Vent said, “It took me a long time to forgive myself for not being stronger. Like, years and years walking around knowing that if I hadn’t broken under the officer’s pressure, if I hadn’t falsely confessed, how many lives would be different. Better. I was mad at myself for not being more of, like, a man. But over time I realized I was just a kid then. When I think back on that kid so scared, so stupid, so young, man, just so young, in that interrogation room, now I think, I forgive you. I forgive that kid. I forgive myself. It seems so long ago it’s hard to even remember who I was at 17. A lifetime ago. I’ve missed a lot of life. But, you know, if all this time we have done and our story out there, if it stops this from happening to even just one kid like I was, it’s worth it. I will know my life had meaning.”

Life. Fresh cut grass, dinner on the table, babies crying, sisters laughing, grandma’s hand on your face, Christmas morning, scraped knees, pretty girls, mom’s voice, falling asleep on the couch, sick days, boot prints on fresh snow, high-bush cranberries, dead leaves in the fall, melting snow, mud, puddles, bicycle wheels over gravel, running on dusty roads, first kisses, first loves, last chances, thunderstorms, birthday cakes, moose soup on the stove, woodsmoke, fish, summer, fall, spring, winter, life, life, life. Seventeen years of living in color, until one night in the seventeenth year, so scared, so young, it changed. Everything changed.

It makes sense that the first life, the other life, is one so far away that he can hardly remember himself back then. Like a photograph out of focus. A dream slipping away in the space between awake and asleep. For seventeen years there was one life. And for seventeen more there has been the other. The smells, the voices, the people, the faces, the seasons – all gone. Concrete and barbed wire, every day the same as the last, the threat of violence pulsing down constantly like the florescent flickering light in any institution. Yet, somehow, there Eugene has found forgiveness. He has found faith. He has, absent all the tiny pieces that contentment is made of, has found assurance that his life has meaning.

Birthdays are not eulogies for the life that came before them. They are not a time to mourn the past.They are not celebrations of the present alone. Birthdays are markings of the passage of time – acknowledgment that time is moving forward, that we are moving with it, and that time has circled one more year, leading us where it will.

Happy Birthday Eugene, and many happy returns. May the next seventeen years of your life be a joining of the last 35. May you someday know the simple joys of life coupled with the wisdom that suffering gifted you. For all the things that are hard to recall from those first seventeen years we know one remains clear – love. The love was real, the love remains, and we know you feel it there too. We are still holding a candle for you, brother, we always will.

 

Bloody Photos of the “Bloodless” Crime Scene Emerge

Aside

ImageWhen Calvin Moses and his passengers came upon a young John Hartman badly beaten, barely alive, and draped over a curb around 2:50am on that cold night in October 1997, the sight of his body was so frightening that the four adults did not get out of the car for fear the attackers were still nearby. They rushed to a nearby apartment complex and called 911. In fact, John Hartman was so bloody and badly beaten that they could not tell if he was a boy or girl, face up or face down. Only that if he was alive, he was barely alive.

One EMT who responded to the call was so badly shaken that he called home, woke his wife, and pleaded with her to lock the door. In the first newspaper article about the case (HERE) the lead detective described the crime scene as “horrific.”

Perhaps Detectives Aaron Ring and Jim Grier (who did the bulk of the police work on this case) believed that when the lab results came back from the car, the clothes, boots, shoes, hands, and feet of the four young men they had arrested in the hours immediately following the girssly discovery of the murdered boy, that the lab results would show what any reasonable person would expect to find on the people and car used to commit a violent stomping and beating death – DNA. And lots of it. But the lab results didn’t tie the Fairbanks Four to the victim. So, they tested, and retested. They took Marvin’s car apart to the point that it cannot be reassembled, searching for blood. And they found NONE.

NO DNA EVIDENCE HAS EVER LINKED THE FAIRBANKS FOUR TO THE CRIME THEY ARE CHARGED WITH COMMITTING.

When the police realized that there was no physical evidence linking Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent, or George Frese to the murder of John Hartman, they did not begin looking for other leads. They did two things – they shopped for jailhouse snitches and “lost” a lot of evidence that would have supported claims of innocence by the four young men and pointed to the guilt of others.

So many things have been lost in the Fairbanks Four case. Life. Time. Freedom. Hope. Memory. Intangible things.

But a lot of other things were lost. Tangible things. Evidence. For example, the first interview police did with Chris Stone. That was “lost.” The transcript of the police interview with EJ Stevens simply directs the reader to the audio recording. Somehow, it was lost. Perhaps no coincidentally “lost” piece of evidence stands out more than the missing crime scene pictures. With no photographs of the crime scene, the public and juries had to rely on the word of the investigators who examined the crime scene (primarily Ring and Grier).

For many in the Native community the moment that the crime scene went from “horrific” to “virtually bloodless” was the moment when it became completely clear that something was extremely wrong with this case. These are, after all, a people who have many times seen a death on the first winter snows when they are blessed with a moose to feed their families. The idea that place where a boy was kicked and beaten to death would be bloodless has long seemed to be a deliberate lie. We can now confirm that anyone who saw the crime scene and later described it as bloodless was lying, and readers can confirm that for themselves by looking at the recently unearthed photograph above.

When KTUU Channel 2 Anchorage did their documentary The 49th Hour: The Fairbanks Four, they were granted access to the historical footage shot by KTVF. During this same KTUU documentary (which you can watch HERE) the CURRENT Fairbanks Police Department police chief applauds the exemplary work of the detectives who investigated the murder of John Hartman, even calling it “model” police work. In that film footage from KTVF that KTUU producers unearthed, buried in the long-forgotten reels of film shot the day that John Hartman died, were a series of images of the crime scene the police and DA described as bloodless. This photograph of the place John Hartman was killed looks exactly as we would have imagined.

Those of us that live with the land and feed our children with what we can gather and hunt know something about blood and snow. We have seen the warm blood of an animal hit snow and race across the surface, frozen. We have seen it seep, and spread slowly from a wound. The place where a life is taken, even when taken respectfully with one swift and cordial wound, is marked on the snow until spring washes it away. We know the way that snow makes blood sticky, how the course hair of moose cling to your hands and boots and resists any attempt to cast it away.

To take a life is to spill blood, and blood remains there where life poured out, and upon those who touched it. It tracks on boots and pants, fingers and hands. Life does not disappear without a trace. John Hartman did not lose his life without leaving a mark behind. Those who killed him did not leave the scene of the crime without the blood of John Hartman on their feet, in their car, on their clothes, their shoes, and hands.

That DNA evidence probably washed over time, as seasons changed. But blood is on the hands of many in the case of the Fairbanks Four: Those who really did kill John Hartman, those who chose to deliberately wrongfully convict the Fairbanks Four believing they had so little value that they would never be remembered and fought for, and those who “lost,” altered, hid, corrupted, and lied. Those people have blood on their hands that cannot be washed away with water or with time. For all those in our community and world who have blood on their hands through murder, corruption, conspiracy, or through the crime of silence, we have a prayer always on our lips and in our hearts for you – that someday you will be free from the prison you built for yourself. That you will choose to redeem yourself as best you can during your time on this earth. That you remember that every day that innocent men spend in prison for a crime they did not commit, you commit another crime, and your guilt grows.

You can try to bury the truth. You can try to outrun it, you can try to lose it by forcing it deep into the darkest theatres of the mind. But you cannot destroy it. You can take a lot from another human being – their life, their time, even their hope. But you cannot take their story, and you cannot take the truth. Truth has a power of its own, and someday, the truth will FREE THE FAIRBANKS FOUR.

The Times They Are A Changin’ – Eugene Vent Granted an Appeal Today

“I praise the ones who persevere in seeking justice through the law. I caution there are those who felt abandoned and betrayed by what they saw. Some stood in halls of silence, with icy hints of violence, when they went to seek justice from the law.” – Dar Williams, from the song “Write This Number Down.”

This morning the State of Alaska Court of Appeals has ruled that Eugene Vent should receive a new hearing based on his claim of ineffective counsel. The ruling comes just two short days after Eugene was featured on KTUU’s 49th Report: The Fairbanks Four.

Eugene had argued in an appeal that his attorney was ineffective in arguing to allow an expert in false confessions and the Reid Method of interrogation to testify at trial. (Read about Eugene’s interrogation HERE and the Reid Method HERE) His appeal was denied when it was presented in Fairbanks Superior Court to Judge Ben Esch. The Alaska Court of Appeals ruled today that judge Esch erred in making that ruling, and cautioned that the denial created the “appearance of partiality.”

We agree. Big time. Judicial conduct in the cases of the Fairbanks Four has created the appearance of partiality. It has contained actual partiality toward the prosecution, and conduct which unbecoming of any public servant or person on God’s Earth, and sometimes conduct which reaches far beyond partiality into corruption. (Read about some concerning conduct HERE)

The ruling is welcome news, and a step in the right direction. We caution all that it is one small step, but in the right direction. It is also a reminder why we fight INSIDE the justice system even though we have seen it fail. The justice system is ours. It is as imperfect as we are, as vulnerable, as corrupt, as sinful. But it is also just as capable grace. Peppered amongst the worst and most biased rulings in this case have always been rulings that contained strength and independence of intellect.

We have said many times over, echoing Martin Luther King, that we know the moral arc of the universe to be long, but also that it bends toward justice. Someday, maybe in a series of events that begins with today’s ruling, and maybe not, our system will bend toward justice in the case of the Fairbanks Four. It will bend toward justice because of the goodness of people. People like all of you. Reporters like Brian O’Donoghue, Rhonda McBride, Steve MacDonald – members of the press who remember their calling as bearers of the truth. It bends because of people like you who have given time in prayer, work, donated a dollar, and hour, or a thousands of each. The list of names would be so long that I could never write it out. Long enough to change the moral direction of our community and court system. So, thank you, all of you, for today’s ruling.

At the conclusion of the ruling the court states that:

“We conclude that vacating the judgment in this case will promote justice in future cases: It will clarify the proper scope of judicial notice and encourage judges to avoid ex parte investigations that may create an appearance of partiality.“We also conclude that, when a judge reaches outside the record to marshal evidence that benefits one party, the unfairness of the resulting decision is apparent. A failure to act in these circumstances could undermine public confidence in the judicial process.”
We could not agree more.

Dear Silent Holders of the Truth – A letter from Eugene

One incredibly frustrating, heartbreaking, difficult reality about the murder of 1997 is that THERE ARE PEOPLE OUT THERE WHO KNOW WHO DID IT. One investigator after another has identified a small handful of people that have information about this case, and knows that there are others. There is a $35,000 reward for information. ANYONE with information can call Bill Oberly with the Innocence Project at 907-279-0454 and come forward anonymously or on the record, and PLEASE, PLEASE, if you or someone you know has information about the killing of John Hartman, DO come forward.

What the investigators continually hear from people with information is that they are afraid of retaliation or being labeled as snitches, most especially afraid of retaliation or hardship if they themselves end up in prison. Although their choice to remain silent is their choice to make, it is heartbreaking. In order for the Fairbanks Four to get a new trial, these people would HAVE to come forward.

Below, Eugene speaks to THEM. To people that have information in this case but choose to stay silent.  Spread this letter everywhere you can, most especially to anyone you think it might apply to. Hopefully their heart is softened by Eugene’s plea and they are encouraged by his words of support.

Endess Graditude – An Interview with Eugene Vent

When reporter Dan Bross of KUAC did his short radio story on the reward in the Hartman Murder being increased to $35,000 he provided us with the unedited audio so that we could share it here on the blog.

We are pleased to bring you a longer conversation with Eugene Vent, who talks at length about how much the movement to free the Fairbanks Four has lifted his spirits, and of his gratitude for all of you!

A conversation with Eugene will always leave a smile on your face – his optimism is heartening, his laugh is contagious, and we are lucky to have one friend who can do that for is. It is a wonder that Eugene can be such a beacon of light from such a dark place.

Below, Eugene speaks from prison, where he has grown up. Where he was sent at an age that most young men are looking forward to getting their first car, to summer, to moving out of their parents house. Where he has pondered for a decade and a half the nature of injustice, of social segregation, the nature of racism, and the corruption of power, in the years where most young men are able to ponder such things on college campuses, or over dinner with friends. Where he was waited for the arc of justice to bend in his favor. All of this in prison – where he could grow into an old man unless this injustice is corrected.

Didn’t Do It – Poem by Eugene Vent

Eugene Vent, a short time before he was wrongfully convicted of murder.

Below is a poem by Eugene Vent. We included a picture of both handwritten pages and typed it for easier reading as well. Imagine the incredible grief and pain that would come from being wrongfully accused and incarcerated. All of the things you cannot do – hug someone, stand out in the snow and see the lights, eat a meal, run into a friend, hold a hand, see you home, your family, stand on the banks of the river. For Eugene that river would be the Koyukon. A few days ago I found myself heartsick for that sight – I haven’t seen it in a few years, and then it dawned on me that Eugene has not seen the places he yearns for in over 14 years. Freedom is everything….freedom is the foundation on which nearly all things in life are built upon. All things except, perhaps, faith. These four young men have seen nothing but injustice, have been the victims of the worst in people. Yet, there they sit, with absolute faith. Faith in destiny, in love, faith in the goodness of people, faith in their friends, family, supporters, faith in prayer, FAITH IN JUSTICE. So much of their strength comes from all of you. We were blessed with two successful fundraisers this week, and are blessed with incredible generosity from so many people. To hear their story would cause anyone to lose faith, but to see the legions of people band together and fight for them restores it. Thank every one of you who reads, donates, hopes, and prays for these men. It keeps their hopes high, their faith strong, and someday soon we hope it WILL bring them home where they belong.

                                           “DIDN’T DO IT”

                                            by Eugene Vent

“Didn’t do it,” that’s what I told the detective, but still he chose to put me through it.

“Didn’t do it,” told my mother and she believed me – continued to have my back like countless others.

“Didn’t do it,” I told my first lawyers. “Take a deal,” they’d plead, instead of fighting like warriors.

“Didn’t do it,” what I told the judge, NOT GUILTY what I pled…..and on that I’ll never budge.

“Didn’t do it,” I told my trial attorney and he told me it could end up being a very long journey.

“Didn’t do it,” I told the D.A., and also the jury…..when found guilty I felt so much fury.

“Didn’t do it,” I told the judge that was going to sentence me…ultimately got 48 years in the penitentiary.

“Didn’t do it,” what I told some antisocial human beings, they didn’t care because they’re heartless machines.

“Didn’t do it,” I told the Parole Board that continued me to 2014; just another chapter in the saga that I know will end in the freeing of the Fairbanks Four!

“Didn’t do it,” what I tell anybody who will listen and do something with it.

“Didn’t do it,” that is our story and we will forever continue sticking to it because the Truth always comes out in the wash.

Thank you so much for reading this, I always loved poetry and being able to create my own style in writing it. Thank you to everyone for cooperating in this battle and never quitting, even in the hardest times.

I believe in the efforts of all of you, I feel extremely confident it will pay off soon and we can finally get what we truly deserve……Freedom.

Baase’

Your Friend,

Eugene Vent

"Didn't Do It" by Eugene Vent, p. 1