This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
As documented in a lengthy investigative series published by this newspaper in 2008, the conviction of four men for the murder of 15-year-old John Hartman a decade earlier can be challenged on multiple grounds. A plausible alternative theory, with evidence that has come to light since the original convictions, has never made it to court.
So the state, which put these men in jail, should make every effort to make sure any issues that arise in this case are now fully explored. That means the Parnell administration should not challenge a decision issued by the Alaska Court of Appeals last week.
The appeals court resurrected one small question among the many that remain. Defenders of the four convicted men should not place too much hope on the answer because that question is so narrow. Nevertheless, the ruling could create opportunities for greater review, and that would be warranted by all that we now know.
The narrow question is this: Did Eugene Vent, who initially confessed to the murder but later recanted, receive ineffective counsel? Vent, in an appeal for “post-conviction relief,” said his trial attorney bungled the effort to introduce the testimony of an expert on false confessions and so the expert’s testimony wasn’t allowed.
A judge rejected Vent’s claim of ineffective counsel. However, the appeals court ruled that the judge violated his code of conduct when reaching that decision.
“Canon 3B(12) of the Alaska Judicial Code of Conduct states that, unless a judge gives ‘prior notice to the parties and an opportunity to respond, a judge shall not engage in independent ex parte investigation of the facts of a case,’” the appeals court noted.
Yet that’s exactly what the judge in this case did. To help him decide whether Vent’s attorney had been ineffective, he took it upon himself to research how frequently the false confession expert’s arguments had been allowed in other court cases. He didn’t tell anyone about his research before issuing his decision, in which he upheld the attorney’s effectiveness.
The appeals court said a reasonable person would conclude that the judge’s actions created an appearance of partiality, so it ordered the question to go back for review before a different judge.
Note that the appeals court did not conclude that Vent received ineffective counsel at trial. It just said that there should be a new hearing, with a different judge, on whether he did.
Many people who have been convicted of crimes later claim that their attorneys were ineffective, in hopes that their cases will be reopened. It doesn’t often work.
Nevertheless, if the new judge concludes that Vent did in fact receive ineffective counsel, it could start to force another look at the case against him.
Vent’s initial confession to police helped convict him and the other three men. If a court concludes that an expert in false confessions wrongly was prevented from testifying during the original trial, it could be an important development.
The appeals court ruling is a small wedge under the prison door that holds Vent and the other three men. Rather than trying to hold that door shut, the state should see what might be exposed by the light creeping underneath.