Marvin Roberts returned home for the first time in 17 years on June 17, but his mood was subdued. “He’s happy to be out,” said his attorney, Bill Oberly of the Alaska Innocence Project. “But he has the other guys on his mind.”
The other guys – fellow Alaska Natives George Frese and Eugene Vent, and Kevin Pease, Crow – remain in prison, convicted with Roberts of the 1997 beating death of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman.
A recent confession by another inmate – backed by corroborating evidence and a lie detector test – suggests strongly that the four were wrongfully convicted. Roberts, Frese, Pease and Vent return to court October 5-12 for an evidentiary hearing to determine whether a new trial should be granted. If the judge grants a new jury trial, the other three could be released on bail, Oberly said in an earlier interview.
The four men were tried in separate trials and received different sentences based on a variety of factors – a disparity Fairbanks Four advocate April Monroe-Frick said defies explanation. She said factors included juvenile records; confessions that were allegedly coerced (and later retracted); and lack of remorse (Pease told the district attorney after the jury returned a verdict, “How does it feel to convict an innocent man?” and Frese said in court he would someday be redeemed). Vent, whose scheduled release date is February 9, 2023, is scheduled to be paroled in August 2019. According to a state database, Pease is scheduled to be released on June 13, 2042. Frese is scheduled to be released on June 12, 2050.
In the meantime, Roberts begins rebuilding his life. He is paroled to a halfway house and there are restrictions on his movement. He is reuniting with family and friends. He’s enrolled at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Monroe-Frick said. And, according to Oberly, Roberts “said he has a couple of job possibilities.”
Said Monroe-Frick: “He’s hit the ground running.”
Roberts will also undoubtedly be involved in preparations for October; according to online court records, attorneys for both sides are taking depositions, compiling lists of witnesses and expert witnesses, filing various motions. A status hearing is scheduled for July 7, a pretrial conference is scheduled for September 30.
Roberts attended an evening welcome-home event, “Solidarity on Solstice,” June 20 at the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall. The event featured rapper/actor Litefoot, Cherokee; comedian Tonia Jo Hall, Lakota; Alaska hip-hop artist Bishop Slice; inter-tribal drumming and dancing with the JOM Potlatch Dancers. The event raised $11,000 for the Alaska Innocence Project and the Fairbanks Four’s defense, Monroe-Frick said.
“Solidarity on Solstice” was sponsored by the Tanana Chiefs Conference; Doyon, Limited; First Alaskans Institute; Fairbanks Native Association; Sound Reinforcement Specialists; and Wright Air.
“We’re so glad to have Marvin home,” Monroe-Frick said. “We’re gathering to welcome him home and to stand by him, because he still has a long journey ahead of him.”
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Roberts came home to a different Fairbanks than the one he last saw as a teenager. The school he attended looks different. A shopping center has been built on a field he knew. The courthouse where he was tried is gone. People are walking around sending something called “texts” on devices called “smart phones.”
“Fairbanks has changed a lot,” Monroe-Frick said. “And we’ve gone from being teenagers to being middle-aged people.” Roberts was 19 when he was arrested for Hartman’s death; he’s now 37.
Monroe-Frick, a real estate agent who was a school acquaintance of Roberts, remembers him as a good student who earned a college scholarship, didn’t drink and was devoted to his faith. She said his faith has carried him through his ordeal and that he remains “a pretty optimistic guy.”
Roberts is also careful; he’s a parolee who, in the eyes of the system, is convicted of murder. His sentence ends on April 26, 2020.
When Department of Corrections officers drove him from Palmer Correctional Center to the airport for the one-hour flight home, they gave him a plane ticket and told him a corrections officer would be in Fairbanks to give him a ride to the halfway house. They dropped him off and he walked into the airport alone.
Oberly met him there. “I told him, I’m your lawyer, so we can probably go into town together and get lunch. And he said, ‘Leave the airport? I don’t think I should do that,’” Oberly said. “He’s on top of things.”
They lunched on hamburgers at the airport instead.