A silent protest in a Fairbanks courtroom. Four fingers held in the air; a quiet plea to end an injustice. The Fairbanks Four. They are George Freese, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease and Marvin Roberts who were convicted in the 1997 murder of 15-year-old John Hartman in downtown Fairbanks. Some two decades after the crime all remain in prison except for Roberts who was granted early parole.
A few years ago I was in Fairbanks and near sunset Brian Patrick O’Donoghue drove me to a downtown location. The University of Alaska Fairbanks professor, who has extensively investigated this case, told me where to stand and then walked far away and took up a position in the fading light. When he returned, he asked, “Could you identify me?” That’s what had to have happened to believe the prosecution’s case against the Fairbanks Four. A taxi driver testified that she saw “four Asian looking men” in the area of the murder. She claimed to have heard Hartman’s pleas and the killers who she said had Native accents.
That alone is bad. The American standard for justice is supposed to be “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That’s a high bar, one that was clearly not met.
But in Alaska all of the institutions at the time aligned to make sure that these four young men would be found guilty. Evidence was flawed, fabricated and withheld when it didn’t fit the narrative. The jury complied, guilty.
But if reasonable doubt was ignored during the trial phase; it’s been obliterated in recent years. There has been more evidence describing the events of that night. In affidavits and in testimony William Holmes has identified Jason Wallace as the killer.
Even Alaska state troopers say the state’s investigation and prosecution was improper.
The Fairbanks Four case is more than an injustice. It represents the contradiction that is Alaska; a state of extraordinary beauty, many remarkable people of all races, and yet, a deep strain of racism. The original prosecutor played to stereotypes and argued that you couldn’t trust evidence from Natives because Natives stick together.
Formally, the Superior Court in Alaska is conducting a hearing to determine if there’s enough evidence for a new trial. I suppose the legal system sees a need to play out this narrative in a step-by-step fashion. But that’s just wrong when three men are in prison and all four are wrongly convicted.
In a Fairbanks courtroom last week it was a simple, silent protest by people in the room. Across the state at the annual meeting of the Alaska Federation of Natives there were even larger demonstrations of support, including the raised four-finger salute from U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski. Marvin Roberts also spoke at AFN; and he too held up his four fingers.
But at that same meeting Alaska Gov. Bill Walker was asked to use his power to free them, and he responded that the young men are getting their day in court.
That’s just the problem. These young men should not be in court. Again. The system has failed. The charges against justice itself mount every day these young men are incarcerated, or considered guilty. It’s long past time the Fairbanks Four are free. And declared innocent.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.On Twitter @TrahantReports.