October 26, 2015
After a brief continued cross-examination of Marvin Roberts and yet another sealed hearing, the petitioners rested their case and asked the judge for an expedited verdict. This is standard legal practice, and essentially says, our case is so strong the court should just make a ruling right now. Judge Lyle denied the motion. The State of Alaska then asked the same – that the judge make a ruling before even hearing their case – and he denied their motion as well. Apparently the intention behind the state making such a move is essentially the state saying, their case was so weak just go ahead and rule in our favor. That said, the idea of asking for a ruling before even presenting your case, particularly the serial killer whose testimony they deemed so critical that they fought for him to receive immunity from prosecution in this murder, seems really strange. All motions were denied, and the State of Alaska began their case.
For those not in a reading mood, here is a quick summary: The State of Alaska called a former bar owner who is very buddy-buddy with the cops responsible for this wrongful conviction to testify that Eugene’s mom told him that Eugene told her he never got out of a car, then they called Eugene’s mom Ida who said that never happened, and then they played video tape of a crazy woman who wouldn’t testify in person telling a really long and incredibly strange story about seeing some Asian/dark-skinned/ light-skinned/ running/ sitting/ yelling/ tire-changing/ men maybe on October 10 while God spoke to her, she changed lanes, rolled a window down, and all in the dark.
For those of you who want all the details, here they are:
The first witness called to the stand was Eugene Vent’s mother, Ida Hogue. Ms. Hogue took the stand and testified that she had not had any conversation about Eugene with the next scheduled witness, Steve Paskvan, that she did not know him, and that she did not get a ride to the airport from him in 1997. Her testimony was brief.
Ida Hogue was followed by witness Steve Paskvan. Paskvan is a former bar owner in Fairbanks, Alaska. He testified that within days of Eugene Vent’s arrest he drove Ida to the airport, and that on the way she told him that Eugene had told her he “didn’t get out of the car.”
On cross it was revealed that Paskvan owned a bar which Detective Aaron Ring frequented and that the two were friends. Paskvan admitted to having a history of criticizing the case with his detective friends. It was further revealed that Paskvan came forward with this testimony quite recently after having Fairbanks officer Peyton Meredith, whom has served as the Fairbanks Police spokesperson on this case in media during recent years, as a guest speaker in his class. While Officer Meredith was there speaking to the high school students, Paskvan told the class about his alleged conversation with Ida Hogue, and Peyton Meredith asked Paskvan to come forward. It was also pointed out in cross that Paskvan did not appear to know who Ida was in relation to Eugene Vent, sometimes calling her his mother and at other times his stepmother.
The next witness was Veronica Solomon who appeared in videotaped deposition, not because she lives out of the area as with some previous witnesses, but because she has been avoiding subpoena and therefore in-person testimony.
In the video Solomon gave a disjointed and wandering account of what she says she saw while driving by the intersection of 9th and Barnette a night she is pretty sure was October 10, 1997 around the time Hartman was killed. Solomon said she rode by the intersection while driving a cab, and saw two men who she believed were Kevin Pease and Marvin Roberts, who looked light-skinned, or dark-skinned, like Asians, “half-breeds,” white, and Native. She says the men were in a brown four door car (Marvin drove a bright blue two door car) and that there were others inside the car. She said the men were getting a tire from the trunk, getting in the car, out of the car, running around the car, ducking, and shouting “freeze.” She says she considered stopping but didn’t because she felt what she calls a “check” – her word for a message from God instructing her not to do something.
“They were both coming around the car, going toward the trunk,” she said. “The one on the right side went back to the right side. The one on the left side went to the left, came back to the back of the car, ran to the left again like he didn’t know where to go, like they were scattering. And then he jumped inside the car and I don’t know if he came out the other side or if he ducked. I don’t know what he did,” Solomon said.
All of this, Solomon testified, happened while she was changing lanes on a one way street, rolling down her window, and driving by an intersection in the dark. It was, to say the least, not very credible because it is impossible for her to have seen what she claims to have seen. Solomon testified, in explaining why she had not come forward, that she did not see any news coverage of the Hartman case until 2005. She testified that she was so sure of what she had seen in 1997 that she wanted to keep the images in her mind pure. However, in 2005 she apparently sought news coverage and was then able to identify that the ducking, running, sitting, standing, tire-changing, light-skinned, dark-skinned, Asian, half-breed, white, Native men she saw in a brown four door car probably in 1997 in the dark were Marvin Roberts and Kevin Pease. She returned to the scene at 3:30 and 6:30 in the morning, per her testimony, and did not see any police cars or crime scene tape. Solomon also provided criticism of the supporters of the Fairbanks Four’s innocence, saying “They think those boys are innocent and they’re fighting for that, without knowing whether they are innocent or not.”
The nature of her testimony was such that it left a listener wondering if she was in sound mind. The other half of her videotaped deposition is expected to begin the 16th day of proceedings.
Following the State’s first day of arguments social media and newspaper comments in the small town were ablaze with commentary about the individuals called.
Ida Hogue, commenters said over and over, lived in Fairbanks and had three small children, including her twins who were babies in 1997. She lived in a busy public housing complex and her neighbors remember the days and months following her son Eugene Vent’s arrest. “This doesn’t make any damn sense,” one commenter said, “everyone knows Ida was in Birch Park staying right by my mom, and at that time she didn’t go anywhere. This is something you remember. This was a difficult time.” Other commenters indicated the same.
As to Steve Paskvan, comments focused on his political aspirations, the clear hearsay nature of the testimony, and the improbability that the circumstances it was described to have taken place in could have existed. His close relationship with the detectives who investigated the original case was discussed as well.
It was, however, the testimony of Veronica Solomon that elicited the most public discussion. We received multiple messages within the first hour after her taped deposition was played from people who knew her alerting us to her mental illness and brain injuries. Two relatives also indicated that they were not sure if she was driving a cab then, but did not think so. A friend said quite kindly that Solomon “thinks differently” and that she found it concerning that anyone would take her testimony in such a serious situation.
The impossibility of the testimony is perhaps of more interest. Solomon testified that she was traveling at five miles per hour (one fifth the speed limit) when she drove by the intersection. The average two lane road is 9-15 feet wide, and a car driving 5 miles per hour travels 7.5 feet per second, which means that she would have had about 2 seconds in which to make all of her observations. Given expert testimony in the case regarding the limitations of human sight, especially eye-witness identification, it seems unlikely that she could have identified anyone in the circumstances described. Her testimony sounds impossible because it is clearly made up, which leaves the question of why someone would make it up. The most plausible explanation for motivation would be mental illness.
It is tempting to be angry with Solomon for what seems to be some really wild and fabricated testimony. The idea that someone would fabricate such absurd testimony ostensibly for attention or the gratification of some small power with other human beings lives at stake is hard to stomach. However, we urge readers to look a bit deeper than the surface. If the accounts of those who know her are true, she may be mentally unwell. When people who are not well engage in behaviors that are attention-seeking or harmful to others it is not okay, but it is often a manifestation of their imbalance. The real travesty is that such testimony would even be entered into consideration by the State of Alaska. Even though it is utterly ridiculous, testimony like that of Solomon’s can absolutely impact the outcome of criminal cases. One has to look no further than Arlo Olson, a man who struggles with mental illness and whose impossible testimony was the cornerstone of the original convictions. Olson has since recanted, but his original testimony was pivotal. Nothing is as powerful as an eyewitness. It is a sad testament to the condition of our justice system that prosecutors will use the same unethical tactics in 2015 to keep innocent men in jail as they used in 1997 to put them there. It is evidence of a disturbing lack of progress. We hope to see these convictions overturned, and through them, forced progress in a sick system.