Four Native men convicted in the 1997 fatal beating of a Fairbanks teenager go to court in May, hopeful a confession from another inmate will result in a new trial and their eventual release from prison.
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The Alaska Innocence Project, which says it has corroborating evidence to back the confession, has asked the court to release George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent from prison. Alaska Assistant Attorney General Adrienne Bachman said she will file an answer to the petition May 15 or sooner. The discovery stage then begins, when the state and the defense can depose witnesses and request information of each other in preparation for a hearing.
“After discovery is complete, we will schedule a hearing. In this case, it will be more like a mini-trial,” said Bill Oberly of the Alaska Innocence Project. “We will put on witnesses that support our claim that the Fairbanks Four are innocent, and the state will put on evidence to support the original convictions. After this hearing, the court will make its decision. That decision will be to order a new trial if we have proven by clear and convincing evidence that the Four are innocent. If the judge orders a new trial, all four will be able to ask for bail.”
Bail would be welcome relief for the four, who were 20, 19 and 17 when they were arrested. Frese is now 37 and a grandfather. Pease and Roberts are 36. Vent is 34. They are serving sentences ranging from 33 to 64 years.
April Frick, who manages the advocacy site TheFairbanksFour.com, said money hasn’t been raised for bail yet, because supporters’ focus has been on raising money for the men’s legal costs. But, she said, “If bail is a reasonable amount, we will find it.”
The night of the fatal beating, October 10, 1997, the four – who knew each other from high school – had attended separate house parties and a wedding reception at the local Eagles Hall. According to their testimony and the testimony of others, only two of the four hung out together that night.
About a mile away, 15-year-old John Hartman – who the four did not know – was walking home alone from a friend’s apartment. A motorist later found him lying partially in the street; he had been beaten and his head stomped. He later died.
Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent were convicted in separate trials, despite the testimony of alibi witnesses and lack of DNA evidence and other physical evidence linking them to the crime.
“They all had alibi witnesses, but there was kind of an underlying implication that those [witnesses] are not believable,” Oberly said in an earlier interview.
The convictions rested on two confessions, later recanted, that were 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 recanted, but later said he stood by his testimony.
Similar crimes had occurred that evening, but no other suspects were sought or questioned.
The Tanana Chiefs Conference and others asked for help from the Alaska Innocence Project, a non-profit corporation that provides legal services to identify and exonerate individuals who have been wrongfully convicted in the state of Alaska. Independent innocence projects across the United States have helped exonerate 316 inmates, according to the Alaska Innocence Project website.
Oberly said his organization’s five-year investigation led to William Z. Holmes, a former Fairbanks man who is serving a life sentence for the 2002 drug-related murder of two people in Northern California.
In a sworn statement, Holmes wrote that on October 10, 1997, he and four high school friends drove around downtown Fairbanks to harass “drunk Natives.” Then, they saw a “white boy walking alone.” During an assault on the boy, one of the men stomped on the boy “repeatedly” until the others yelled “that’s enough.” The affidavit identifies the stomping suspect as Jason Wallace, who is in prison for a murder and arson related to Holmes’ murder case.
The Alaska Innocence Project believes Wallace made statements about Hartman’s death to the public defender in his 2002 murder case, and wants the court to open a sealed record it believes contains the information. The court appointed an attorney for Wallace on March 12. That attorney, Jason Gazewood, has asked the court to keep the record sealed, saying it’s protected under attorney-client privilege.
Oberly told ICTMN that Holmes provided the sworn statement in 2012 and that the Alaska Innocence Project spent the following year corroborating the statement. The project filed its petition with the court in September 2013, and Bachman was assigned by the court to review the case and respond.
“When it comes to discovery, it will be clear that the State knew that [the four] were wrongfully convicted,” Frick said.