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Delegates to Alaska Native convention say 'Fairbanks Four' should be freed

Dermot Cole
Without objection, the Alaska Federation of Natives declared in a resolution Saturday that the state convicted the wrong men for the 1997 murder of 15-year-old John Hartman in Fairbanks. Loren Holmes photo

FAIRBANKS—Hundreds of delegates to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention joined a rally Saturday protesting the incarceration of the “Fairbanks Four.”

The convention unanimously approved a resolution asking to ”re-examine this case and right the wrongful conviction of four innocent men.”

Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent and George Frese are serving long jail terms, convicted in three separate trials for the killing of 15-year-old John Hartman in 1997 in Fairbanks.

Last month the Alaska Innocence Project filed a request for post-conviction relief, which includes a statement from a 33-year-old man serving a life sentence in California that he and four other friends—not the men who were convicted in 1999--were responsible for Hartman’s death.

Jerry Isaac, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, said circumstantial evidence that was “pure fabrication” led to their convictions.

The evidence did not meet “due process guidelines,” and he called upon other delegates to say “we will not tolerate racial-based convictions.”

Since 1999, TCC has annually approved resolutions calling for a review of the case and it has backed the efforts of the Alaska Innocence Project since 2008.

Shirley Lee, a former vice president of Tanana Chiefs, said the system was stacked against the four men who have now spent nearly half of their lives in jail.

"'Fifteen years ago a prosecutor in this case in court, stated, 'You can’t trust those Native people because they stick together,' implying that we would lie to protect our own," said Lee.

In his remarks in court, the prosecutor mentioned conflicting reports from witnesses about the location of one of the defendants. He compared the situation to a scene in the movie “Spartacus.”

In that scene, various people stepped forward to say “I am Spartacus” to protect Spartacus.

Lee said the men went to prison despite “improper police work, fabricated evidence in the court of law” and “coerced confessions.”

She said she expects the state will file for an extension seeking more time to respond to the documents filed a month ago.

“We as Native people across the state must stick together,” she said, adding that the civil rights of the four men were violated.

She said the same thing could happen to “any one of our children and grandchildren.” What is needed, she said, is an impartial review of the evidence.

“We have to remain strong so that the future of our children is not in jeopardy. Racism does exist today as it did when I was a teen-ager. But we have the collective voice to right those wrongs and to stand up for ourselves,” she said.

Evon Peter, the former chief of Arctic Village, said that the justice system in the late 1990s in Fairbanks was not impartial.

He said there was a “racist and aggressive targeting of young Native boys in this city.”

Peter said there were “gaping holes” in the evidence used to gain the convictions in the trials in Anchorage.

“It’s a radical injustice to our people and we need to demand an exoneration of them and true justice for our people,” he said.

Aaron Schutt, the president and CEO of Doyon Ltd.,  said he is a cousin of one of the four men. He attended the trial of Marvin Roberts from start to finish.

“That was not justice in that courtroom,” he said, adding that the evidence did not warrant convictions.

It should “scare us all” that the men were found guilty based on the evidence presented in court.

“This is a travesty,” he said, referring to “unbelievably fabricated” testimony.

“It was shocking. My jaw was probably on the floor half the time I was in that courtroom,” he said.

Three weeks ago, the Department of Law said it would review the new material filed in the case.

“Although there has never been any credible or serious allegation about the integrity of the investigation, or the prosecution, which led to these convictions, the department will conduct an independent review,”  a state announcement said.

“The Department of Law remains confident that all four convictions were properly obtained based upon the evidence presented at the trials. Notwithstanding, doubts have been expressed in the community where these crimes occurred, and the department believes a review of this new information is warranted,” the state said.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @DermotMCole.