Editor’s note: An updated story will be posted December 18.
George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent are free men today, after 18 years in custody for a crime they didn’t commit.
Superior Court Judge Paul R. Lyle ordered the men, known as the Fairbanks Four, released from state custody December 17, after accepting an agreement negotiated by attorneys for the Four and the state. Under the agreement, the state throws out the indictments and murder convictions of the Four; the men agree to not sue the state and other agencies involved in their arrests and convictions.
The release of the men, three of them Alaska Native and one Native American, comes one month after the conclusion of a five-week evidentiary hearing that examined new evidence in the case, including a confession by a former Fairbanks man serving double-life in California for drug-related murders committed in 2002.
The release ends a long nightmare for the now middle-aged men, who were teens when they were arrested and charged with the October 11, 1997 fatal assault of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman. 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.
During the evidentiary hearing, attorneys also reexamined controversial police interrogation methods that resulted in two confessions, later recanted; and testimony, later recanted, from a witness who identified the four men as being involved in another robbery that evening, although he had been drinking and he saw the robbery from 550 feet away in the dark. The testimony was considered at the time by prosecutors as being critical to the convictions.
Alibi witnesses placed the four men, teenagers at the time, at different places the evening of the fatal assault. No DNA evidence or other physical evidence linked the men 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 Daily News-Miner reported.
Following conviction, Pease was sentenced to 77 years, Frese 75, Vent 39, and Roberts 33. Roberts was paroled to a halfway house in June.
In an earlier interview, April Monroe, a blogger and Fairbanks Four advocate, said of the agreement between the state and the four, “There are people who think it’s unfair, and it is,” she said. But from the men’s standpoint, a court decision on their petition to have their convictions overturned would likely be followed by appeals, which could mean more time in the system, Monroe said.
At this point, “It’s just a matter of getting home,” Monroe said. “They could stay in and demand compensation” after being exonerated. “But they’ve already missed 17 Christmases; how much are you going to sell that 18th Christmas for? Time is priceless.”
ICTMN FAIRBANKS FOUR COVERAGE
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’