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'Fairbanks Four' defendant gets new hearing

Alaska Dispatch

One of four men convicted of killing a 15-year-old Fairbanks boy more than 15 years ago has been granted a chance to argue for a new trial. Last fall, the Alaska Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court improperly handled defendant Eugene Vent's claim that he'd received ineffective counsel.

State prosecutors argued against the ruling and appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, but the high court announced on April 11 that it wouldn't take the case, KTUU reported.

Now, Vent will get another chance in trial court to prove his attorneys lacked competence and failed to provide reasonable assistance. Vent is serving a multiple-decade sentence in Colorado along with three other Alaska men -- Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease and George Frese. The four men were convicted in separate trials of beating John Hartman to death on a downtown Fairbanks street corner on Oct. 11, 1997.

Vent has argued the court convicted him based on a confession he made during a police interrogation rather than physical evidence tied to the crime, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported. He said his trial lawyer failed him by not persuading the judge to hear testimony from an expert witness who specialized in police interrogation tactics and false confessions.

No date has been set for Vent's next hearing, according to court records.

The killing and subsequent trial involving Vent and his accomplices has been scrutinized since its beginnings. April Monroe, a friend who grew up with the four and founded the organization "Save the Fairbanks Four" and blog of the same name, argues the case never added up.

Convictions were partially based on confessions from two of the defendants -- including Vent, who was 17 years old at the time -- who later recanted, according The Associated Press.

April wrote on her blog that the confessions didn't align, and witnesses provided contradictory timelines to the police. But at the time, Monroe wrote, public sentiment was not skeptical; people were outraged and "hungry for justice."

The victim, Hartman, died a day after the assault. On Oct. 14, 1997, the News-Miner ran a front page article headlined "Attack called 'random act of violence.'" The first paragraph of the article reads, "The 15-year-old boy beaten to death by four assailants early Saturday was kicked in the head at least 15 times and then sexually assaulted in what police say was an act of 'random violence.'"

The article continues with former Fairbanks Police Lt. Paul Keller's account of the slaying, stating the Fairbanks Four had attended a wedding reception and started a string of random assaults that culminated with Hartman's beating.

Monroe and other Alaska Natives in Fairbanks have argued some details of the initial press coverage were false and misleading. The News-Miner reexamined the case with a seven-part series in July 2008. The series was the product of a six-year investigation by a former reporter and his journalism students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The integrity of the Alaska court system troubled Athabascans tied by family and heritage to three of the convicted men, the article says. Don Honea, a ceremonial chief of 40 Interior villages at that time, was blunt about the verdicts handed down to the three Alaska Natives. "These boys were railroaded," he said, and added that Natives "don't feel they have a chance if they go against a white system." Pease, one of the four men, is white.

The series examined evidence used during the trial that since has been identified by national studies as contributing to wrongful prosecutions elsewhere. Among the observations:

  • The police investigation remained focused on suspects flagged through a pair of confessions despite lab tests that yielded no results.
  • Detectives lied throughout the interrogations that resulted in confessions from Vent and Frese, which both men later recanted.
  • Police paid little attention to the last person known to have been with Hartman. Chris Stone, a 14-year-old self described meth addict, had been hospitalized following a similar assault only weeks prior. Jurors never heard about the boy's attention-grabbing entrance into a Fairbanks Carrs around the time Hartman lay dying in the street. And none of the men saw Stone's statement to the police.