FAIRBANKS, Alaska – One of the four men convicted of killing Fairbanks teenager John Hartman 15 years ago should get a new hearing on his claim that he had an ineffective attorney, the Alaska Court of Appeals has ruled.
In a 12-page decision Friday, the court determined that Superior Court Judge Ben Esch erred in conducting his own research and then using that research in part to deny Eugene Vent's appeal.
Vent contends his trial attorney didn't adequately argue against the judge's exclusion of testimony from an expert in coercive police interrogations and false confessions.
Esch, now a Superior Court judge in Nome, was the trial judge in the case and also oversaw the appeal on the issue of whether Vent had competent legal representation.His research focused on whether legal maneuvers Vent's attorney could have conducted had been successful elsewhere.
The appeals court concluded a judge may research uncontested matters of fact outside the courtroom, but Esch went too far.
"When a judge reaches outside the record to marshal evidence that benefits one party, the unfairness of the resulting decision is apparent," the court opinion states.
The ruling does not grant Vent a new trial, but does provide him with a new hearing to pursue one.
"There's a lot more that has to be done, but we are happy with the opinion," Vent's current attorney, Colleen Libbey, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
The 15-year-old Hartman was found beaten and stomped in downtown Fairbanks in 1997. He died at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital after lingering in a coma.
The four men were convicted in 1999 and are serving sentences of 33 to 79 years in a Colorado prison.
Many members of Fairbanks' Alaska Native community insist the four were wrongfully accused, citing the lack of physical evidence. The Tanana Chiefs Conference is offering a reward of up to $35,000 for information that will help free Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Vent.