Since the moment the Fairbanks Four were arrested for the murder of John Hartman in 1997 the case has been plagued by questions, community concern, and accusations of corruption. As the years passed the movement to exonerate the men convicted in the locally notorious beating death has not faded, but grown larger and more persistent. These efforts have raised funds for rewards, appeals, litigation costs, awareness campaigns, and to support the work of the Alaska Innocence Project. Many events, speeches, news articles, television specials, and rallies have been held over the course of the sixteen years that the Fairbanks Four have been incarcerated, and the case has long been a line dividing the residents of Alaska’s “Golden Heart City” between those who believe the four are innocent and those who do not. In all the years that the case has worked its way through the Alaska court system and the court of public opinion, there is no question that the most explosive development in the Hartman murder and plight of the Fairbanks Four has been the confession of convicted killer William Holmes, who names himself and four other men as the true perpetrators of the murder of John Hartman.
The handwritten confession, received by Alaska Innocence Project in late 2011, is the most shocking revelation of the application for a post conviction relief file on behalf of the “Fairbanks Four” on September 25, 2013. However, the handwritten three page confession is only a fraction of the contents of the 138-page filing. (READ CONFESSION).
Following the filing the State of Alaska’s representatives, Jason Skidmore on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office and Fairbanks Police Chief, were dismissive of the confession. Their criticism was essentially that the confession was not credible given the source – that the character of a known murderer was suspect and Holmes had nothing to lose. In this post we seek to counter that position and give a brief overview of the supporting statements of others and documentation that bolster the validity of Holmes’ confession.
In the days and weeks to come we will take a more detailed look at each of these piece of the Alaska Innocence filing. But for now, we want to outline the contents of the filing that corroborate the confession.:
1.) The affidavit of Scott Davison, who provided a statement to Alaska Innocence Project in 2008. In his sworn affidavit Davison details the confession that Jason Wallace gave to him in 1997 in the days after the murder of John Hartman. The details of the confession Davison recalls and the confession of Holmes, each given without the knowledge of the other and some 14 years apart, match closely. Scott came forward with no motivation (reward was not yet in place) beyond doing the right thing.
2.) The DMV records supporting that Holmes in fact owned and was driving the vehicle he describes in the confession. When a confession is not credible, small details are incorrect. For example, a person fabricating a confession often does something like name a car that they owned, but not at the time of the crime.
3.) Records from the FNSB School District affirming that the five accused were, as Holmes claims, classmates. They all attended Lathrop Highschool, as did EJ Stevens and Chris Stone, the last two people to see Hartman alive. Again, this is the kind of small detail that a false confession often misses.
4.) The filing also indicates that sealed statements made by Jason Wallace likely corroborate the confession of William Holmes. Reporter Brian O’Donoghue recently wrote an article that addressed this sealed statement in detail. His speculation, backed up by jailhouse interviews with Wallace and some thinly veiled comments from a few local public defender’s, is essentially that Wallace confessed to the Hartman murder sometime around 2002-2004 to his public defender, but that the attorney has kept quiet under the guise of attorney-client privilege. Unless and until a judge orders the “sealed” evidence to be opened, its contents cannot truly be know. But O’Donoghue’s work provides a strong hint to the contents of the evidence under seal. Read the article HERE.
5.) The details in the confession of William Holmes closely match what is known about the crime, victim’s injuries, and crime scene. Holmes describes spotting Hartman as he turned off of Barnette Street. He describes how Jason Wallace stomped Hartman over and over, despite the protests of the others present. He describes how, as Marquez Pennington rifled through the contents of Hartman’s pockets, the boy was shaking and then went limp. Hartman was found with the contents of his pockets scattered about, his wallet missing, laying face up with his knees on the curb, torso in the street, his baggy pants down near his knees, and other clothing in place. Hartman was displaying deceberate posturing, a body state that is indicative of severe brain injury, and often brain death. It is likely that the moment when Hartman stopped shaking was the moment of brain death. His belongings were scattered as they rifled through his pockets. His position was consistent with the assault type.
6.) Holmes does not mention a sexual assault. There was early police speculation and a “satanic panic’ style community belief that Hartman was sexually assaulted. In reality there was no determination of sexual assault by anyone besides one under-qualified nurse who likely mistook the anal dilation associated with brain trauma for a sign of sexual assault. The state medical examiner and other experts brought in to look for indications of sexual assault found none. The fact is that the physical evidence of the crime never supported a claim of sexual assault, although the press and community clung to it. Given that there is more evidence that Hartman was not sexually assaulted than that he was, there is credibility in a confession that does not contain this element.
7.) Holmes states that Jason Wallace, the ‘ringleader’ in the account give by Holmes, had a substantial amount of blood on his clothes and shoes. Although the crime scene was described as bloodless by police, and had not been seen until the image on this blog was unearthed (HERE), the nature of Hartman’s injuries, statements by the people who found him, and recollection of responding EMTs always lead most who considered it to assume that whoever committed the crime would have had a substantial amount of DNA evidence on themselves and any getaway vehicle.
8.) The Holmes confession meets all litmus tests used to determine if a confession is legitimate. He provides details on location, the victim, the motivation, and shares the chilling details that have remained with him through the years. He does all of the talking, and is not prompted with leading questions or supplied details to repeat. No one forgets a murder. Holmes has spent the last eleven years without access to the internet, to news about this case, with no contact with the others he names, and had to draw his confession from memory alone, and memory that was a decade and a half old. That he was able to provide so much detail is indicative credibility. The experience of participating in a killing as a teenager would be traumatic. Even though he says “mentally, I lived as if that night never happened,” the details were likely so clear and accessible because they were so traumatic and remained vivid.
The filing corroborates every independent and verifiable statement made by Holmes. However, the State of Alaska has still chosen to question the credibility based on the character of William Holmes as well as the “nothing to lose” factor (Holmes is serving a double life sentence for unrelated killings). We would like to address both attacks on the credibility of the confession.
First, let us say that the ONLY credible confession of murder comes from a murderer. When a false confession of murder is elicited it is, in fact, not particularly credible (read about that HERE). It is a sad irony that the Fairbanks Chief of Police would make the statement that confessions of murder by known murderers is not the kind of confession he finds credible, in light of the fact that the FPD was quite willing to take confessions in this case from innocent men that were clearly not credible. It is impossible to receive a credible confession of murder from anyone except a killer. That three of the five men named have committed other murders does not detract from the credibility of the confession, it strengthens it. It is a tragic revelation. The moment that John Hartman stopped shaking these men became killers. Three of the five went on to become serial killers. That these men are capable of the crime is clear. We find this unimaginably sad, but also very true.
The second attack on the credibility of the confession is that Holmes has nothing to lose by confessing. He is serving a double life sentence, so it is absolutely true that the threat of additional time is probably not the kind of disincentive that it would be for a free man. That said, Holmes lives in a maximum security prison in California, which has the highest rate of murder of incarcerated men by incarcerated men in the country. It is well-known that in prison culture the most hated and attacked prisoners are snitches and child molesters (there are thousands of killings and articles and studies to underscore that, look on your own if you like, HERE is a relatively random one if you would like to read about snitching in prison).
The reality is that William Holmes has nothing to gain, and everything to lose. He has put his life on the line, and although we will not defend his character, he has risked the only thing he still has – his life. Assuming he is not killed for snitching, he has certainly sentenced himself to a life of isolation, fear, and assault. It is impossible to say what motivated Holmes, but the most likely one is perhaps the most simple – for 16 years he has lived knowing that innocent men are in prison for a crime they did not commit and he chose to right that wrong. He has committed the sin of murder, and there is nothing he can do to bring the people he killed back to their families. But he does have the ability to do what he can to end his part in the ongoing victimization of the Fairbanks Four. For all of these many years people have hoped, prayed, and dreamed that the hearts of whoever killed John Hartman would be called to come forward. We choose to believe that those prayers certainly can permeate concrete and pass through prison walls, and that they reached William Holmes and called him to do the right thing.
If Holmes came forward just to clear his conscience, he would hardly be the first. Many wrongful convictions have been resolved after the true perpetrator confesses (read those stories HERE and HERE). Sadly, initial reactions to the confessions that eventually freed the innocent in those cases were met with the same predictable response that the State of Alaska has expressed in the Fairbanks Four case.
It is extremely uncommon for a prisoner, even a lifetime prisoner, to arbitrarily confess to a crime he did not commit. Voluntary false confessions are rare as well. It is reasonably common for the wrongfully convicted to be cleared or unsolved crimes to be solved when a perpetrator voluntarily confesses years later. These confessions usually come from prison cells, because the perpetrator went on to commit similar crimes and were eventually caught.
William Holmes’s confession is credible. And, contrary to the sentiment expressed by the state of Alaska, no one has to take his word for it in isolation. The confession is backed up by hard corroboration, the matching statements of others given at other times without collaboration, and mounds of anecdotal evidence that indicates that this is what a credible confession looks like. (Read about credible confessions HERE).
Regardless of his past misdeeds, William Holmes made a decision to tell the truth. And, as we have said many times, the truth will prevail. The truth will FREE THE FAIRBANKS FOUR.
*Footnote – it remains necessary, although painful, to write about the details of the last moments of John Hartman’s life. To those who knew and loved him, we are sorry if our words bring you pain. We have posted about that HERE and encourage all of our readers to pray for John, his family, and remember to honor his memory as best you can.