‘Fairbanks Four’ Seek Truth, Freedom As Evidentiary Hearing Begins
by Richard Walker, Indian Country Today, Oct 6, 2015
As four weeks of evidentiary hearings began October 5 in a Fairbanks courtroom, April Monroe and other supporters of the Fairbanks Four prayed for justice – not just for the four men they say were imprisoned for a murder they didn’t commit, but also for John Hartman, the teenager who died after an act of random violence on a street corner one cold Fairbanks night 18 years ago.
“He was a victim of a hate crime,” Monroe said of Hartman. The person or persons responsible for Hartman’s death have not had to answer for the crime, and because of that “he was denied justice.”
Monroe, the Alaska Innocence Project, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and others contend the Fairbanks Four – George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent – were victims of a racially-tinged rush to judgment by police and prosecutors eager for a conviction for Hartman’s death.
Supporters say the four men – three Alaska Native, one Native American – were convicted based on two confessions, later recanted, obtained by police using a controversial interrogation method; and on testimony from a witness who identified the four men as being involved in another robbery that evening, although the witness had been drinking and he saw the robbery from 550 feet away in the dark. He later recanted his testimony, and then later said he stood by it.
The men had alibis backed by witnesses. No DNA evidence or other physical evidence linked them to the crime. Two of the men rejected plea bargains in return for testimony against the others. Frese’s requests to take a lie detector test were rejected by the state, the Fairbanks News-Miner reported. Following conviction, Pease was sentenced to 77 years, Frese 75, Vent 39, and Roberts 33.
Efforts to prove the men’s innocence were bolstered in 2011 by a detailed confession from William Z. Holmes, a Fairbanks man serving a double life sentence in a California prison for unrelated murders; he later passed a polygraph examination regarding his account. The confession corroborated a statement about Hartman’s death that a Holmes associate made to his own public defender as he prepared for trial in 2003 for another murder.
Those statements led to a petition for post-conviction relief, legalese for an opportunity to contest and try to reverse the conviction. After approximately four weeks of evidence presentation and testimony, Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle could rule that the Fairbanks Four deserve a new trial. Or, as supporters hope, he could rule they are innocent and order them immediately released.
(In a 23-page review of the case submitted to the Superior Court in May 2014, Alaska state Special Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman stated that the defendants’ claims of innocence “are based on likely inadmissible evidence;” a prison inmate’s sworn statement that his friend inflicted the fatal injuries is based on “hearsay”; a potentially corroborating statement is from a witness who is “not credible”; and proposed updated testimony from two expert witnesses that testified in the 1998 trial “does not qualify as newly discovered evidence” under the law. But she said she did not oppose an evidentiary hearing in the case, saying it would be “the defendants’ burden to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that they are factually innocent” of Hartman’s murder.)
On October 5, supporters rallied outside the courthouse, holding signs that called for “Justice for the Fairbanks Four,” “Freedom for the Fairbanks Four,” and “Truth.” Drummers drummed and sang. They were joined by Marvin Roberts, paroled to a halfway house in June and now working for Doyon, an Alaska Native regional corporation. (According to state databases, Vent is scheduled to be paroled in August 2019; Pease is eligible for parole on June 13, 2042, Frese on June 12, 2050.)
Inside the courtroom, reporters blogged and tweeted (you can follow their posts at Free the Fairbanks 4). Holmes, brought from California to Fairbanks and wearing orange prison uniform, testified. Frese, Pease, and Vent listened to the proceedings by telephone from the Fairbanks jail. The judge ordered the men transferred from their Alaska prison cells to Fairbanks so they can testify. But because the evidentiary hearings are civil, the state is not obligated to provide transport to and from the courthouse for the men. The community is raising money to cover the costs, Frese’s attorney said.
And, on October 10, the community will remember John Hartman. Monroe said she expects there will be a candlelight vigil that day.
“John Hartman was killed on the corner of 9th Avenue and Barnette [October 10, 1997]. He was a boy … he has been gone now more years than he was alive. And nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever eclipse the importance of his existence, the tragedy of his death,” Monroe once wrote on the Free the Fairbanks Four website she manages.
“We remember to never forget John Hartman. And into the darkening night we deliver this prayer – may all that were altered or harmed on the night of October 10, 1997 feel peace. May this prayer find its way to the sky and into the awareness of those who have moved on from this Earth. May the legacy of John Hartman be peace, justice, and above all, a reverence for life …
“As darkness falls tonight and any night, never let it rob you of the knowledge and faith that morning always returns. The light is coming.