At 6:27 p.m. December 17 Alaska time, an excited crowd had gathered at the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall where, according to supporter April Monroe, the Fairbanks Four’s freedom was to be celebrated with a potlatch.
George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent – three of them Alaska Native, one Native American – went from teen-age to middle-age behind bars for the October 11, 1997 fatal assault of a Fairbanks teenager, John Hartman; and the robbery of a man, Frank Dayton, the same night. On this night, the Four were free men, their names cleared of crimes they always said they didn’t commit.
The men were expected to arrive together by 6:30 p.m. after their release was processed a few blocks away at the Fairbanks Courthouse.
“People are absolutely ecstatic. It’s been a long time coming,” Monroe said. She expects that there will be a larger community discussion at some point on how to heal the wounds and close the racial divide in the state, and that the four men will likely have a role in that. “But tonight, we just want to welcome them home,” she said.
In a negotiated agreement approved that day by Superior Court Judge Paul R. Lyle, the State of Alaska dropped its 1997 indictment of the men after a five-week evidentiary hearing left the state admitting it would likely not win conviction in a retrial. The hearing examined new evidence in the case, including the confession of a former Fairbanks man serving double-life in California for drug-related murders committed in 2002, and reexamined earlier evidence and testimony.
The Alaska Innocence Project, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and others contend the men were victims of a racially-tinged rush to judgment by police and prosecutors eager for a conviction for Hartman’s death. While the men’s 18-year legal nightmare ends, questions remain about the integrity of the justice system and the state of racial relations in Alaska.
In the agreement negotiated between attorneys for the state and the Fairbanks Four, the state dropped its original indictment and cleared the men’s records of the crimes; the men dropped their claims of prosecutorial misconduct, will not sue the state or other agencies involved in their arrests and conviction, and will not seek compensation for the time they spent in prison.
But in a statement issued by the office of state Attorney General Craig Richards, state’s attorneys still contend the men were “properly and validly investigated, prosecuted and convicted.”
The state’s seemingly contradictory message in the agreement – that the state believes the men guilty, but could not win a conviction because of evidence and testimony brought forth in the evidentiary hearing – was not lost even on Hartman’s older brother, Chris Kelly, who talked to the court by phone during the release hearing. “If they’re innocent – if you believe that all of a sudden now – I don’t see why you could even justify doing this to them,” he said. “And if they’re guilty, I don’t see how you can justify making a deal.”
The men were convicted based on confessions, later recanted, obtained using a controversial police interrogation method; and a witness’ testimony, also recanted; and despite the testimony of alibi witnesses and lack of DNA evidence tying the men to the crimes.
Nevertheless, the State of Alaska “fervently and continually contested the men’s claim of innocence,” the Alaska Innocence Project reported in a statement issued the day of the men’s release. “The State maintained this position even in the face of a finding by their own cold case investigators that the case against the four men was not supportable. The State’s opposition continued through more than a year of discovery, and through five weeks of an evidentiary hearing …”
The innocence project added, “George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, and Eugene Vent—along with their attorneys — felt they had presented a very convincing case and more than met the burden of proving their innocence by clear and convincing evidence.”
At this point, a negotiated resolution that provided for their immediate release and resulted in a complete vacation of all convictions was seen by the men as “a desirable result,” the innocence project reported. The men are now free, stand innocent of all charges related to the 1997 crimes, and will spend Christmas with their families and friends.
“The deal brings freedom, erases charges and convictions, avoids prosecutorial misconduct … carries no compensation,” messaged Brian Patrick O’Donoghue, the University of Alaska Fairbanks professor whose tenacious investigative reporting helped bolster the Fairbanks Four’s case. “You have to be here to understand why they took it. Just came from the tribal hall [at 10:10 p.m.] For tonight, all 4 are dancing.”
The Alaska Innocence Project was assisted in the men’s defense by Bob Bundy, Jahna Lindemuth, Kate Demarest and Mike Grisham of the law firm Dorsey & Whitney; they worked on the case pro bono. Also assisting were Whitney Glover and Rick Allen of the state Office of Public Advocacy.
Rebuilding their lives
Marvin Roberts, paroled to a halfway house in June, is employed by his Alaska Native corporation and will enroll in a university soon. Frese, Pease and Vent are reuniting with their families and will soon begin charting their futures.
“Once this chapter of their lives has come to a close, they will face a new set of challenges as they begin their re-entry into society,” Tanana Chiefs Conference President Victor Joseph said on the conference website. “These men have been imprisoned for most of their adult lives. The road ahead for the Fairbanks Four is going to be a long one and Tanana Chiefs Conference will be there to support them every step of the way. We ask that the rest of the Fairbanks community and even the nation join us in support of these men.”
The chiefs conference has set up a donation account at Wells Fargo Bank (Account #1642290082). The chiefs conference will manage the fund for the Fairbanks Four. Those desiring a donation receipt (donations are tax deductible) can send donations directly to Tanana Chiefs Conference, Attn: Fairbanks Four, 122 1st Ave., Suite 600, Fairbanks, AK 99701.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker wrote on Twitter of the Fairbanks Four’s release, “I’m pleased the State of Alaska Department of Law and legal counsel representing the Fairbanks Four agreed on a settlement that satisfied the court. I hope this settlement helps begin the healing process and provides some measure of justice and closure for Eugene, Kevin, George and Marvin.”
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a statement released by her office, “I am pleased that the State of Alaska agreed to set aside the convictions of the Fairbanks Four based on the new evidence that has been developed and that Judge Lyle has accepted the settlement agreement today. I first took up the cause of the Fairbanks Four in 2013, asking the State of Alaska to take a hard look at whether their convictions were just. I concurrently asked the U.S. Department of Justice to examine whether the civil rights of the Fairbanks Four were violated.
“I commend UAF Journalism Professor Brian O’Donoghue for his dogged investigation and the outstanding attorneys of the Alaska Innocence Project and Dorsey & Whitney for their diligent representation. I also commend the members of the Fairbanks community who have stood vigil to ensure that the cause of the Fairbanks Four was not forgotten. Justice prevails!”
Mike Williams Sr., chief of the Yupiit Nation, was celebrating the four men’s release December 17 but said the men’s case points to issues that Alaskans must address.
“I’m really happy today to hear the news of the Fairbanks Four being free,” Williams said. “Their families have been affected badly, because everybody knew something was wrong here, and that [the men] should have been home with their families and contributing to society. This case is the tip of the iceberg.”
Alaska Natives comprise 14.8 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But more than a third of Alaska’s prison inmates are Alaska Natives, according to a report by the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“The justice system in the State of Alaska has only been in existence since 1959,” Williams said. “With those outside justice systems coming in, we’ve gone from being crime-free and our people taking care of themselves – with no killings, no suicides, no domestic violence – to having the highest rate of suicides in our area, and also domestic violence, cancer deaths and accidental deaths.
“This is a classic example of what is wrong with our justice system today … Because of the huge number of our indigenous people in our jails right now, we have to work hard to make amends and our justice system – the judges, the prosecutors, everybody – has to take a high-level look at how we communicate, how we do things. We have never been understood. There has always been the western ways of doing things. The federal government, state and tribes have to come together to really understand each other and communicate. And the 229 tribes [in Alaska] have to come together and say ‘enough is enough.’”
ICTMN FAIRBANKS FOUR COVERAGE
December 17, 2015: Breaking: Fairbanks Four Freed
November 30, 2015: Fairbanks Four hearings over, now wait begins
November 2, 2015: Fairbanks Four ‘upbeat’ as evidentiary hearings near conclusion
October 19, 2015: Alaska’s Reluctant Pursuit of Justice: The Fairbanks Four
October 6, 2015: ‘Fairbanks Four’ Seek Truth, Freedom As Evidentiary Hearing Begins
October 23, 2014: Evidentiary Hearing Scheduled November 10 in Fairbanks Four Case
December 5, 2013: 7 Questions With Adrienne Bachman, Fairbanks Four Reviewing Prosecutor
November 17, 2013: Set Them Free? Senator Calls for Swift Review of Fairbanks Four Case
November 8, 2013: New Hope for the ‘Fairbanks Four’