FAIRBANKS MEN WERE FREED, BUT INNOCENCE NOT YET ESTABLISHED
Alaskans still don’t have a clear idea of who killed 15-year-old John Hartman in October of 1997. But it’s apparent that the four men who served time for the 1997 beating death, and who are now suing the City of Fairbanks, were released due to political pressure on the governor, not necessarily because of their innocence.
The four — George Frese, 20; Kevin Pease, 18; Marvin Roberts, 19; and Eugene Vent, 17, were marketed by their attorneys and supporters as the “Fairbanks Four.” The name stuck.
The idea of applying a catchy name worked well for the Chicago Seven in the 1960s, and it is a winning strategy for those who want to demonstrate that an injustice has occurred.
Their case became a cause celebre for Native Americans, journalists, and journalism and law students. A web site was launched to exonerate them. But even though their attorneys make claims to the contrary, they have never actually been truly exonerated.
Through the legal process, they had been found guilty. But in the court of Alaska politics, they became victims, rather than perpetrators.
In the end, the Walker Administration just could not take the pressure — it washed its hands of the matter and let them go, under the condition they would not sue.
John Hartman’s death occurred Oct. 12, 1997, about 24 hours after he had been found beaten on the street.
In a jury trial, Roberts was found guilty of Murder 1, Murder 2, 1st degree robbery, and assault in the second degree in connection to the death of John Hartman. He had been the driver of the car, as implicated by Vent. Vent and Frese admitted to the crime.
Today, Roberts is suing. His attorneys say he was framed. The other three men followed suit.
The case had political and racial elements from the beginning and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which is close to the courthouse, kept the cause alive.
Then, soon after Gov. Bill Walker was elected, a deal was struck. The Department of Law, with Attorney General Craig Richards, worked a way out of the political problem: They worded a release deal carefully, so that the state did not admit to any wrongful judgment against the four, but stipulated that the “original jury verdicts and judgments of conviction were properly and validly entered based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Roberts signed it.
What AG Richards said was more guarded: “In this settlement, the four defendants agreed they were properly and validly investigated, prosecuted and convicted. This compromise reflects the attorney general’s recognition that if the defendants were retried today it is not clear under the current state of the evidence that they would be convicted.
On page 3 on “Robert’s Settlement Agreement and Mutual Release of all Claims,” Roberts agreed that the City of Fairbanks and its departments, divisions, agencies, agents, representatives, directors, past and current employees, attorneys, contractors, retained or non-retained experts, witnesses, predecessors or successors in interest were released and forever discharged.
That means he would not sue the City of Fairbanks either. But that was then.
Roberts is now saying he was coerced into signing the Attorney General’s release. He was already out on parole at the time of the settlement, but the other three would not be released from prison until he signed the agreement, and he now says that the pressure to do so was too much for him. He did it against his will.
IT BECAME PART OF THE 2014 ELECTION CYCLE
Did Gov. Walker cave under the tremendous racial/political pressure from a core constituency that helped elect him?
At Alaska Federation of Natives convention in 2015, Walker faced a convention full of people who were raising four fingers in the air, to demand the release of the four men.
Sen. Mark Begich asked for federal intervention in 2014, formally requesting a review from the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and saying that there had been “prosecutorial misconduct and coercion, along with evidence uncovered in recent years that includes a confession to the crime by a different individual.”
“It is time for a thorough review of the circumstances of this case by an impartial authority,” said Begich. “The State has requested delay after delay of its review and has attempted to keep information from being publicly disclosed. I agree with the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Tanana Chiefs Conference that this case requires federal review, and that is why I’ve made the formal request of the DOJ. We must be certain that those who are guilty of the brutal murder of John Hartman in 1997 have been brought to justice.”
In September of 2013, a Fairbanks man serving a double-life sentence in California claimed that he and some friends from Lathrop High School killed Hartman. It’s a complicating factor, to be sure. William Holmes, Jason Wallace, Shelmar Johnson, Rashad Brown, and Marquez Pennington are the real culprits, according to the attorney for the Fairbanks Four, Michael Kramer.
THE CONFESSIONS OF TWO OF THE FAIRBANKS FOUR
The problem with the lawsuit filed by the four men against the City of Fairbanks is that there is still are the confessions, such as this one from George Frese to law enforcement on Oct. 11, 1997, parts of which are highlighted here. Frese was 20 at the time he made these statements.
It’s unlikely that Alaskans, who have followed the case through newspaper accounts, have ever seen these documents, but the people of Fairbanks would be interested in them, since it’s the people of Fairbanks who are now being sued by the four men, who say their civil rights were violated. These documents are excerpts of an extended interview:
CONFESSION OF GEORGE FRESE: