October 7, 2015 –
On the third day of the legal proceedings which the Fairbanks four believe will lead to their exoneration, the court heard from witnesses who corroborated the Holmes account that he met up with Rashan Brown, Shelmar Johnson, Jason Wallace, and Marquez Pennington, and that the five went on from there to fatally assault John Hartman, from the elderly Robert John who was assaulted by Holmes, Wallace, Brown, Pennington, and Johnson the night in question, and viewed the Wallace deposition, where the convicted killer invoked his right against self-incrimination on nearly every question.
The first witnesses all discussed the events of the high school party where Holmes and the others met up. Regent Epperson testified that she had thrown the party in her mother’s apartment. The party was typical high school fare – with a parent away on a business trip, high school students flooded in and out of the small south side apartment. Epperson denied that Holmes would have been at her party, as she distinctly remembers disliking him for dating two girls at once (although he did not begin dating either of the girls named until some months later) but acknowledged that he could have been in the other room our outside. Two of Regent’s part guests confirm having seen Holmes at the party.
Jennifer Nutt placed both Holmes and Brown at the party, additional witness Phil Duty placed Holmes, Wallace, Brown, and Johnson there. One small detail that is confirmed across witnesses are the undergarments of Rashan Brown, which apparently attracted a great deal of attention. According to Epperson, Holmes, and Duty, Rashan Brown was extremely intoxicated and while he was on the floor his leopard print underwear were visible to other party goers. This was a source of great amusement for the teenager, and is a detail some eighteen years later that remains consistent and fresh.
The Fairbanks Four counsel elicited significant information about the departure of the maroon ford tempo Holmes was driving and claims in his confession was the car used in the assault of Hartman. Philip Duty testified that he wanted to catch a ride with Holmes, but wasn’t able because the car was full. They were, according to the Duty testimony, “riding five deep.” He was able to identify Holmes as the driver, and the passengers as African-American men. The witness testimony confirmed the presence of Holmes and the others he named on the night in question, and placed Holmes leaving with a full car. Bachman, special prosecutor for the State of Alaska focused on the lack of time-specific information. It is absolutely the case that most of the witnesses can testify to the order of events, confirm the events and the date, but eighteen years later are not clear on time.
The party-goers were followed by a feeble and ailing Robert John, an elderly man who persisted through clear physical discomfort to relay the assault he suffered on the same 1997 night that Hartman was killed.
Before we knew that Holmes would confess, had heard his name, knew who really had killed Hartman, or any of the details which have now become central to the case, we knew that there had been a significant number of similar crimes committed that evening. One of the assault victims was Robert John, who was attacked outside Past Time Card Room in Fairbanks. John’s assault was witnessed by a man named Raymond Stickman, who did not know who John was, but reported the attack to Fairbanks Police. In his police statement, Stickman described an “older” Native man attacked near the card room by four African-American youth. He described their car as a four-door full size car, perhaps a Ford.
Robert John testified that three African-American youth attacked him, hitting and kicking him, but ultimately retreated when he fled for the card room. In Holmes’ confession he described an identical assault, and described how as they drove away the group saw “twenty drunk Natives” down an alleyway, and joked that had they chased the man into the alley they would have “got their asses whooped.” Past Time Cards was next to a long alley, and it was into that alley and Past Time cards that John escaped.
Jason Wallace, implicated by his own 2003 confession and the 2011 and 2013 confessions of associate Bill Holmes, made his debut as a witness in the case as well. A videotaped deposition of Wallace showed the man blithely answering various versions invoking his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. He did answer questions unrelated to the Hartman crime, including confirming that he is in prison now after bludgeoning a woman to death with a hammer, driving across town to stab a friend with a screwdriver many times, then returning to the first crime scene to light to woman’s body and fully occupied apartment complex ablaze. The only thing that was made clear by Wallace’s answers to the questions in deposition was that Wallace cannot answer any questions about the murder of John Hartman without incriminating himself, which bolsters the argument that he is criminally responsible for the killing.
The day’s proceedings ended with multiple requests from the State of Alaska to suppress testimony regarding Wallace’s 2003 confession to his public defender and the public defender’s investigator. Judge Lyle struck down the effort, citing the leaked information as an obvious breach of sealed proceedings, and reiterating his desire to consider admissibility only after hearing information in the case. Judge Lyle also declined to keep testimony of the public defender and the public defender’s investigator closed, citing the same reasons.
“I couldn’t stop the press from publishing what 18,000 people had already seen. This information is out in the public, and if the only place it cannot be public is in this courtroom, in this case, where it’s relevant, then there has to be something wrong with that law,” Lyle said.
Adrienne Bachman, on behalf of the state, cautioned the judge that he should warn the witnesses about their potential criminal liability should they choose to testify. Judge Lyle challenged Bachman to validate the threat with either law or through the constitution, and she was unable to do either. So, to clarify, Bachman made a thinly veiled threat of prosecution toward these witnesses once they were admitted against her wishes, despite clarity on their testimony not being illegal. If that doesn’t sound familiar, revisit any of the original witnesses who gave testimony against the state’s interest and were threatened with criminal prosecution. It is a trick, but not a new one.
The prosecution’s theory is that the Holmes confession is entirely fabricated. For this theory to hold water, that would mean a lot of people secured a time machine and went back to 1997 to fabricate corroborating details and police reports to match the Holmes account. The petitioner’s attorneys continue to argue steadily and convincingly that George Frese, Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts, and Kevin Pease are, as they have claimed to be since their arrests, innocent of the murder of John Hartman, and that William Holmes, Rashan Brown, Shelmar Johnson, Marquez Pennington, and Jason Wallace are responsible for the crime. The proceedings to present the evidence for each theory will continue until the end of October, and the ultimate outcome will rest in the hands of Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle.