A U.S. senator has asked Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell to direct his staff to “thoroughly and swiftly” complete a review of evidence that could exonerate four Native men imprisoned for the 1997 beating death of a teenager.
The request from Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) dated November 8, came after the state’s prosecutor asked the Fairbanks Superior Court for additional time to complete the review – six months, rather than the state-required 45 days.
Hoping for their convictions to be overturned are Alaska Natives George Frese, 36; Marvin Roberts, 35; and Eugene Vent, 33; and Kevin Pease, 35, who is Crow. Ages 20, 19 and 17 at the time of the crime, they are serving sentences ranging from 33 to 64 years.
RELATED: New Hope for the ‘Fairbanks Four’
They were convicted despite testimony that backs up their alibis; incriminating testimony that is questionable and, at one point, was recanted; and no fingerprints or DNA evidence that connect them to the crime.
The Alaska Innocence Project asked that their convictions be overturned after it obtained a sworn confession from a former Fairbanks man now serving a life sentence for murder in California. The man, William Z. Holmes, wrote that he and four other individuals, all high school friends, had been cruising around town that night harassing “drunk Natives” when they saw “a white boy walking alone.” During the ensuing confrontation, one of the friends stomped on the boy’s head; the boy died of his injuries in the hospital. Holmes’ statement identifies a friend who allegedly inflicted the fatal injuries. Bill Oberly, a defense attorney who directs the Alaska Innocence Project, said Holmes’ confession is backed by corroborating evidence.
But the state assigned the review to a prosecutor who had a vacation scheduled and was assigned to another trial.
The prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Adrienne Bachman, told Indian Country Today Media Network by e-mail that she began the review on October 21 – 15 days into the 45-day review period – after completing a trial to which she was already assigned.
“Among the ‘related matters’ that I feel I have to understand and master are the over 1,600 pages of ‘discovery’ (meaning police reports, interview transcripts and lab reports), thousands of pages of trial transcripts from the 3 jury trials convened in the cases … [and] hundreds of audiotapes. I am also spending time reviewing the many statements of community members who claim to have information,” she wrote November 15.
Shirley Lee, chairwoman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference Justice Task Force, expressed concern that completion of the review could take as long as May 2014 and questioned the state’s dedication of resources to the case.
“We are very disappointed with their timeline,” she said. “They arrested these four young men very quickly and rushed them to conviction. We’re not seeing that same urgency.”
Begich wrote to Parnell of the four Native men in prison, “If new testimony in the case is proven true, then we cannot stand for them to spend one more day in prison. This case has been a painful chapter for the Fairbanks community, Alaska’s First Peoples and our entire state.”
Meanwhile, Lee, told ICTMN on November 12 that the conference may bring certain issues regarding the case to the attention of the U.S. Justice Department. According to Begich’s letter to the governor, Alaska imprisons Alaska Native and minority citizens “at a shockingly high rate.” He wrote, “Alaska’s First Peoples make up about 16 percent of our state population, yet comprise 37 percent of the inmate population in this state.”
Lee added, “Race and how our people are dealt with is a concern.”