Journalist Under Fire in Fairbanks Four Hearing

BrianO'DonoghueThe bearded and bespectacled man on the witness stand looked every bit the part of reporter and professor as eyes darted from one end of the courtroom to the other, following the volley of words between attorneys arguing about the man’s very presence in the courtroom. The notion alone of a reporter on the witness stand who has neither witnessed a crime nor participated in one, but has simply researched and written articles, is unsettling enough to spark debate. Over the objections of media attorney John McKay, to the horror of fellow journalists, and the great fascination of spectators, the reporter was indeed called to testify in the evidentiary hearing for four men who are widely believed to be wrongfully convicted of an eighteen year old murder.

O’Donoghue came to cover the murder of John Hartman and the convictions of four Native American youth quite by accident. The reporter was not assigned the story when a fifteen-year-old found brutally beaten to death on a downtown Alaskan street corner and four young Native men were swiftly arrested for the crime, but he recalled shrugging off the early gaps in the case narrative. In general, he said, the case seemed straightforward and properly covered.

“I will defend the paper’s coverage as free of bias and largely driven by official statements, typical of any high-profile event. The tone was set in the police press conference that Monday following the crime. Detective Keller announced the case solved through confessions, attributing the crime to a ‘spree of violence.’ That seemed definitive.”

But, the reporter would soon discover, the case conclusion was anything but definitive. In addition to writing as a senior reporter, O’Donoghue was the editor of the opinion page at the local newspaper, where letters to the editor insisting the four accused were innocent did not slow down even as the guilty verdicts rolled in. By the time O’Donoghue looked at the case the four accused had already been arrested, indicted, tried, and convicted in three separate trials, and on the surface the case was open and shut. The verdicts were so widely accepted as fact by the press that the case would likely have disappeared from the media entirely if not for the letters landing so persistently on the reporter’s desk.

“I was fact-checking a letter to the editor from a man named Curtis Sommer. He raised so many potentially libelous questions that I had to keep digging deeper and deeper into court files for verification, in the process finding more and more truth to his claims about the investigation, flaws and testimony conflict unresolved in court.”

O’Donoghue’s initial casual research into the case would spark an investigative reporting project that spanned more than fifteen years. His decision to fact-check the letter would ultimately lead the reporter from the comfortable anonymity of the newsroom, into a courtroom, and into the news himself.

newspaper3The convictions of the four accused rested very heavily on the eye witness testimony of a man named Arlo Olson, whose testimony was the subject of the letter to the editor that sparked O’Donoghue’s curiosity. Olson was presented at trial as a moral man doing his rather heroic civic duty by coming forward with his account of seeing the four accused men together that night. But O’Donoghue rapidly uncovered a more complex vision of the star witness than the one presented at court, and subsequently printed in the media. Olson was facing charges for beating a pregnant woman when he came forward as a witness. Some months later he was granted a sentence with no jail time, with the judge’s stated motivation for the leniency that Olson had “assisted authorities.” Olson was a far cry from the academic and clean-cut young man the jury was led to believe stood before them, and in fact had a long and troubling criminal record. O’Donoghue also realized that Olson had been standing 550 feet away from the assault he claimed to have witnessed, in the dark, drunk, and in a crowd of people who all claimed to have seen nothing. O’Donoghue’s earliest research into the star witness produced even more startling revelations that the transcripts and public records. Olson had recanted, multiple times, including to the prosecuting attorney for the state who threatened Olson with perjury if he refused to testify.

The reporter sought out the star witness for an interview and found Arlo Olson in jail and willing to talk. Olson admitted that his testimony had been false and that he had not seen the four accused that night. He had a series of lengthy conversations with Olson, who wove stories about his troubled life and relationship complaints into his account of how his trial testimony came to pass. Olson told the reporter that he had legal troubles and was struggling with addiction in October of 1997, when police officer Aaron Ring approached him to see if he had seen anything the night in question. Officer Ring, Olson claimed, fed him information and pressured him until he agreed to the officer’s version of what Olson saw. Then, Olson claimed, Officer Ring and prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant worked together to coach Olson’s testimony and threatened him with prosecution for perjury if he refused testify in court. O’Donoghue recorded the conversations, lawfully, a process he eventually described in detail in his writing, and continued to research the case.

O’Donoghue reached out the convicted men. He corresponded with Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, George Frese, and Marvin Roberts. All four of the men remained steadfast in their claims of innocence. He corresponded regularly with Roberts.

As the research progressed, O’Donoghue left the Newsminer and began teaching journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He used his investigative journalism course as a lab for the complex and evolving work on the Hartman case. His students dissected the case, constructed timelines, interviewed witnesses, and ultimately secured access to interview the convicted men in prison.

O’Donoghue’s continued investigation into the case with the help of energetic would-be journalists would ultimately reveal that Olson was hardly the only facet of the case that seemed riddled with contradictions and was vastly different than what had been presented in such an open-and-shut fashion in the early media accounts and trials. His work culminated in the 2008 publication of a newspaper series called “Decade of Doubt.”

Npaper1The articles consumed the front page of the paper for seven consecutive days and revealed the many inconsistencies in the investigation, the Olson inconsistencies, unearthed an illegal jury experiment, explored the details of the alleged confessions, presented the possibility of alternate suspects, and generally revealed to the community of Fairbanks that the case that had shocked them all in its brutality yet strengthened their faith in local justice may not be what it initially appeared. The series also gave a public voice for the first time to many Native community members and leaders who had long held the four were innocent.

The community was as polarized by the series as they had been by the crime. Although the assertions from a sector of the community that the men were innocent were as old as the case, the “Decade of Doubt” series brought the controversy into the mainstream community, and it was clear that the case was not going to go away any time soon. The series landed O’Donoghue and his work in the line of vision of powerful prosecutors, police officers, and politicians who all had a vested interest in the convictions of the four men.

As the years went on and more and more information came out about the case, O’Donoghue continued to cover the case. The revelation about illegal jury experiments during the original trials contributed to a successful appeal. O’Donoghue continued to cover the case as it wound through a maze of legal victories and failures, ultimately terminating when the Alaska Supreme Court was given the case and after years of consideration simply declined to make any decision at all.

O’Donoghue covered the inception of the Alaska Innocence Project, their decision to take on the case, the renewed effort to expose the wrongful conviction within the legal system, and the huge grassroots social movement in support of the men now popularly known as the “Fairbanks Four.” Indeed, the reporter’s coverage spanned a decade and a half, and saw the convicted men from youth to the cusp of middle age. The reporter himself had gone all gray by the time his coverage was interrupted by a subpoena from the State of Alaska demanding his letters, interviews, phone calls, research, notes, emails, and more.

The reporter refused to hand over materials which he believed disclosing would violate the constitutional right to freedom of the press, but was still forced to hand over a large volume of the information demanded.

Brian O’Donoghue’s work as a journalist secured him a place on the State of Alaska’s witness list.

They called him to the stand and the asked a series of questions aimed, presumably, at insinuating the journalist was somehow responsible for Arlo Olson recanting his testimony and that in general his press coverage of the case had contaminated the case to such a point that the witnesses he spoke to should be discounted. Embedded in the questions were a series of accusations.

The State accused O’Donoghue of recording his interviews with Arlo Olson secretly. They had no evidence to back the claim. In reality, O’Donoghue clearly indicated to Olson that they were on the record. “I lawfully recorded them and I had put on the record that I was interviewing him on the record,” O’Donoghue said on the stand.

Although the conversations were clearly recorded within the confines of the law and ordinary trade practices, it was striking that the State found it so objectionable. They of course did not deny that Olson had repeatedly recanted his testimony in 2001, as he had just days earlier in the same proceedings, but just insinuated that they didn’t like it. The move likely backfired as it led to the admission of Olson’s previous statements, which match his 2015 claims that his testimony was false, underscoring the likelihood of an alternative motivation in calling the reporter.

The State accused O’Donoghue of providing Olson legal advice. Olson had repeatedly told the reporter that he falsified his testimony because, among other reasons, he was threatened with prosecution for perjury if he recanted. O’Donoghue suggested to Olson that other sources had told O’Donoghue that Olson’s recantation was unlikely to be believable to most courts, save for his assertion that he feared prosecution. O’Donoghue did not tell Olson what he should do, only what others had said about the general reception and what his research had revealed. His exact words to Olson were, “It would be very difficult for them to, for the court to, accept that one way or another that you would change what you’ve said and sworn to already. The only kind of thing that would really persuade them about this, apparently, is for you to really persuade them that you were really scared about the whole perjury thing.”

The state insinuated that O’Donoghue had been too friendly to Marvin Roberts. Not that he had conspired with him, influenced him, and engaged in any activity beyond correspondence….simply that O’Donoghue had been too friendly. The questioning was so irrelevant and absurd that it would have been a hilarious parody of itself had the stakes not been so high. Because when our press is under fire, democracy is under fire.

democaracyfreepressAlongside the reporter and professor under fire in the courtroom, the very concept of freedom of the press and freedom of speech in Alaska came under scrutiny. As the reporter’s phone calls were played and his emails were read line by line, there was a message between the lines clearly communicated to the press of Alaska – if you write something your government doesn’t like, there are consequences.

The court proceedings in 2015 something important in common with the original troubled trials in that there was much more than met the eye to nearly every witness and exhibit presented. And that underscores the necessity of a free press in making the truth public. In the confines of a court, under the auspices of regulation and procedure, only part of the story can ever be told. If we are ever to see justice, and see revelation of the absolute truth, it requires a press free to report the truth without fear of retaliation.

O'Donoghue

Newsminer photo, 2015

When O’Donoghue was released from the witness stand he took his place in the gallery among the rest of the press. Previous to his release as a witness it would have been illegal for him to sit there and cover the story he had covered for more than fifteen years.

A lesser journalist would have backed down from this story long ago. Great journalists write until the story ends. Great journalists fear the end of the free press more than embarrassment. Brian O’Donoghue is certainly that kind of journalist, and we owe him a debt of gratitude as a community and state. Thank you, Brian O’Donoghue, for reporting the news, for not taking sides, for not worrying about ruffled feathers or bruised egos, and thank you for teaching the next generation of journalists to do the same.

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Jason Wallace’s Confession Leaked to a Reporter

Jason Wallace, 2004

Jason Wallace, 2004

The exact nature of the statements made by Jason Wallace regarding his participation in the Hartman murder have long been veiled in secrecy and the source of much speculation. The statements of Wallace, as summarized by Judge Paul Lyle in a document that was intended to remain confidential, were briefly published by the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer.

An article posted by the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer on August 20, 2015 to the newspaper’s website revealed the specifics of the confession, apparently made in 2003 to an attorney and investigator employed with the Fairbanks Public Defender’s Office. The Newsminer reported the details of Jason Wallace’s statements were leaked “inadvertently” by a party who was in lawful possession of the material. The article then goes on to detail the confession of Jason Wallace in the murder of John Hartman.

KEY POINTS IN THE WALLACE STATEMENT

  • Wallace confessed in 2003 while awaiting trial on an unrelated murder to public defender Geoffry Wildridge.
  • Wildridge then sent public defender investigator Tom Boles to speak to Wallace, presumably to investigate the veracity of his claim.
  • Wallace, like Holmes, describes leaving a party in a car with the intention to assault people. He describes first assaulting a man on First Avenue and robbing him. Holmes also describes an assault that preceded the Hartman beating, but in less detail. Wallace’s description of the assault closely matches the facts known about the Dayton assault, which figured predominantly into the case.
  • Wallace names three people as participants in the Hartman murder – himself, William Holmes, and a third person, whom the article only clarifies as a man also named in the 2011 Holmes confession. We feel it is safe to assume that Jason Wallace named himself, Holmes, and Rashan Brown, as both Brown and Holmes were both incarcerated in maximum security facilities in others states, had less to lose, and posed no threat to Wallace. Holmes names the same three participants as Wallace, plus Marquez Pennington and Shelmar Johnson.
  • Wallace denies sexually assaulting Hartman, and states that he does not think his group would have sexually assaulted Hartman. He speculates that the Fairbanks Four could have found and sexually assaulted Hartman later. In reality, there has never been any forensic indication of sexual assault. The charges were based entirely upon the observations of one nurse, not qualified to take an exam, and whose belief Hartman was sexually assaulted contradicted the autopsy and medical examiner’s conclusion.
  • Wallace claims he, not Holmes, was driving the car. Holmes and Wallace essentially finger the other as the major aggressor, although both confess to participating in the planned hate crime assault which killed Hartman.
  • For over fifteen years, public employees sworn to act as agents for justice have kept the confession of Jason Wallace secret under the auspices of privilege, despite the fact that failure to reveal the information has contributed to the unlawful detainment of four citizens, and that disclosing the information is clearly allowed.

The article was live for a very short period of time before the link was removed and all traces of reporter Sam Friedman’s revelation in the Fairbanks Four case were rapidly erased from the Newsminer site. The printed paper in circulation throughout the city today shows no sign of the report. we can only speculate that the newspaper removed the article after experiencing backlash from some local or state player – and likely from the source of the information leak.

Prior to the removal of the article, several members of the “Free the Fairbanks Four” Facebook page copied and preserved the text. We are opting to republish the article in its entirety, along with a series of images which confirm that it was indeed posted by the newspaper. It is supposed to be the job of the press to report newsworthy and credible stories without attention to political pressure or consideration for the reputations of the players. Certainly, the Newsminer showed no hesitation when running the first articles in this case which contained incredible inaccuracies, unchecked information, astounding bias, and fed the community frenzy which contributed to the hasty and wrongful convictions of George Frese, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent, and Marvin Roberts. When the players are have more social capital the rules of reporting apparently swing as far in the other direction. According to their own article, the Newsminer has factual and credible information on the confession of Jason Wallace and has opted to rescind an article which fulfills the most important duty and responsibility of the free press – to report the news. It appears the press is not nearly as free as it ought to be here in the Golden Heart City. In a world where journalists are beheaded for speaking the truth and jailed for protecting their sources, the cowardice it takes to remove the article stands out all the more.

We applaud Sam Friedman for writing the article. The full text is below:

FAIRBANKS—A sealed court document obtained by the Daily News-Miner corroborates some details of an alternate account of the 1997 John Hartman murder but also clashes with key aspects of the 2012 statement that is being presented as a confession by one of the teen’s true killers.

Since their convictions in the late 1990s, the four men convicted of murdering 15-year-old Hartman have maintained their innocence and tried to win exoneration. Three of these men — Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease and George Frese — remain in jail. The fourth, Marvin Roberts, was paroled this year.

Nearly two years ago, the Alaska Innocence Project, which had taken up the case of the men who have come to be known as the Fairbanks Four, filed court papers claiming the men are innocent and that Hartman was killed nearly 18 years ago by a group of five other teenagers in a maroon Ford Tempo driven by William Z. Holmes, a man later convicted of two other killings.

Advocates for the four men backed their claims with three documents — a handwritten statement from Holmes and two indirect accounts about another convicted killer, Jason Wallace, whom Holmes says stomped Hartman to death.

One of the indirect accounts, containing statements reportedly made by Wallace, has remained under a court seal. It is awaiting a court determination on whether a statement Wallace made to a Public Defender Agency employee can be used as evidence.

The News-Miner obtained a sealed court document that contains a summary of Wallace’s purported confession after an individual with lawful access to the document inadvertently provided it to the newspaper.

Similarities, differences

Holmes and Wallace were Lathrop classmates who went into the cocaine-trafficking business. Holmes is serving a double life sentence and Wallace a 70-year sentence for murders committed in a failed 2002 takeover of a drug business. Wallace beat an Ester woman with a hammer while Holmes shot two men en route from Tacoma, Washington, to California, according to the cases against them.

Holmes told a California prison chaplain in December 2011 that he was involved in the Hartman murder. He repeated the assertion in a sworn statement in August 2012 for the Innocence Project.

Holmes wrote in his affidavit that he was driving around downtown Fairbanks on Oct. 10, 1997, with four others looking for an intoxicated Alaska Native to beat up, something he used to do for entertainment at the time. During their drive, they came across a “white boy” walking alone, he wrote. Holmes said Wallace and the three other young men in his car got out to beat up the boy.

Holmes said he remained in the car and that he couldn’t see the beating because bushes blocked his view.

The group later realized from newspaper accounts that the boy they had beaten was John Hartman and that he had died from his injuries.

Wallace’s account shows some similarity to Holmes’ account but also has some key differences.

Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle described Wallace’s narrative in a sealed November 2014 ruling related to the Alaska Innocence Project’s exoneration case. The ruling is under seal pending a court ruling on its status because it relates to a statement Wallace reportedly made to a Public Defender Agency employee, information that is supposed to remain confidential.

Wallace’s statement reportedly originated from a visit he had from Thomas Bole, then an investigator for the Public Defender Agency, which was representing Wallace in the unrelated 2002 murder case.

Lyle’s ruling says Bole went to Fairbanks Correctional Center to interview Wallace in January 2003 after Wallace told court-appointed attorney Geoffry Wildridge he had information about the Hartman case.

Wallace reportedly told Bole that he — not Holmes — was driving the car. And he says it was Holmes and another of the people named by Holmes who beat Hartman. Wallace says he remained in the car while Hartman was assaulted.

Wallace also reportedly mentions a total of three young men in the car, including himself, differing from the five mentioned by Holmes.

“Wallace said that Holmes and [the third person] jumped out of the car while he waited in the car. He did not witness the assault, but, when they came back to the car Holmes and [the third person] had a couple of dollars,” Lyle wrote in his summary.

“Wallace told Bole that he thought the petitioners found and killed Hartman because Hartman had been sexually assaulted and he apparently did not think Holmes or [the other person] would have done that,” Lyle wrote.

Lyle clearly mentions, in a footnote, that he is not passing judgment on what Wallace is alleged to have said: “The statements of Wallace summarized in this paragraph are not considered for the truth of the matters asserted.” His note says they are included because they are relevant to the question of whether Wallace was seeking advice from his attorney.

Wallace, in the judge’s summary, also references an incident that preceded the attack on Hartman, one not mentioned by Holmes.

The evening began, Wallace said, at a party attended by Holmes and another of the men alleged to later be involved in Hartman’s death. He says the three left and drove through downtown and assaulted — “knocked over” — an individual on First Avenue and stole money from him. The group then drove to the Foodland grocery store — now home to the Co-op Market Grocery &

Deli — and, after a while, returned to their car and drove down Barnette Street, where they encountered Hartman, who was walking.

Lyle’s summary of Wallace’s purported statement doesn’t mention what car they were in.

Holmes makes no mention of the First Avenue assault in his five-page affidavit. He says the group of five — not three — left a girl’s apartment to go downtown, with Holmes driving. Holmes said the other four men jumped out of the car and chased two Alaska Natives but returned to the Ford Tempo when the men ran into an alley. He said there were 10 other grown men in the alley. There is no mention of an assault.

The group, according to Holmes, then drove around downtown for about 20 minutes “without seeing anyone else to harass” and decided to return to the apartment where they had been earlier in the night. It was at that time that they encountered Hartman, he wrote.

The victim of the First Avenue assault mentioned by Wallace is not identified in Lyle’s ruling, but an assault in front of the Eagle’s Hall on First Avenue figured prominently in the case against Frese, Vent, Pease and Roberts. The four were convicted of that assault in the same trials that led to their murder convictions.

The statement’s path

Wallace’s alleged statement about the Hartman murder came to the Alaska Innocence Project by a circuitous process.

Bole, the Public Defender Agency investigator who had interviewed Wallace in 2003, later passed the information to another agency investigator, Richard Norgard, who had previously helped found the Alaska Innocence Project and who had been in contact with the organization about the Hartman case.

The parties dispute exactly when the information changed hands between Bole and Norgard, which matters because it determines who breached what is supposed to be a confidential relationship between a client and his attorney.

Lyle, in his November tentative ruling, found it was not necessary for him to determine who breached Wallace’s confidentiality; rather, he wrote that the issue to be decided was the legal remedy for Wallace and how to handle the desired use of the information by attorneys for Frese, Pease, Vent and Roberts.

The Alaska Innocence Project, which is leading the exoneration effort, is seeking judicial permission to use Wallace’s alleged statements as part of its case. Lyle and, later the Alaska Court of Appeals have each ruled that the attorney-client privilege was breached and that the Innocence Project can use the statements.

Wallace opposes the statement’s release and has taken the matter to the Alaska Supreme Court, which has yet to hear the case.

Below are some images which confirm the origin of the text. HERE is a link to a PDF version of the article.

Newsminer editor Rod Boyce shares the article on his Twitter feed.

Newsminer editor Rod Boyce shares the article on his Twitter feed.

wallacelinkpic

Article as seen on Newsminer.com prior to its removal.