The movement to free four men whose supporters say were wrongfully convicted of killing a Fairbanks teenager in 1997 took to Anchorage's streets Saturday.
The Anchorage march and rally were for the so-called Fairbanks Four: Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent. The men, all of whom are either Alaska Native or American Indian, were convicted of murder in three separate trials for the death of John Hartman, 15, and sent to prison.
Hartman had been found badly beaten on a downtown Fairbanks street one night in October 1997. The four suspects were attending a wedding across town at the same time. Detectives put together a theory that the four were driving in Roberts' car when they decided, randomly, to attack Hartman. Prosecutors pinned the murder on the men using circumstantial evidence and what they said were confessions by two of them, who had been interrogated for hours without lawyers while they were tired and drunk.
An absence of physical evidence and eyewitnesses, among other problems in the case, left lingering questions. Were the men "railroaded?" Is Hartman's real killer still on the loose?
Prosecutors and detectives on the case have stood by their theory of the Hartman murder. All four defendants have so far lost appeals in state court for new trials.
Fifteen years later and 360 miles from the scene of the crime, those attending the Free the Fairbanks Four rally in Anchorage were convinced more than ever that Roberts, Frese, Pease and Vent are innocent.
Support for the four men has grown slowly but steadily since their convictions. On Saturday, that grass-roots effort culminated in the Anchorage march. About 150 people with signs saying "Truth and Love Will Prevail" and "Release Them" marched to the beat of drums from Town Square Park to the Delaney Park Strip, where more supporters joined them.
University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Brian O'Donoghue, whose investigative journalism classes have uncovered several problems with the convictions, said he was encouraged by the number of attendees such a long way from Fairbanks. O'Donoghue said he first saw the case as an example of how average people often have a difficult time understanding the justice system. But the closer he and his students looked at it, the more flaws they found in the investigation and prosecution of the four men.
"If they do get a new trial, I'm confident they'll be found innocent because so much has come to light," O'Donoghue said.
Anchorage attorney Bill Oberly, executive director of the Alaska Innocence Project, said he plans to soon file lengthy court challenges to the convictions. The 50- to 60-page filings for post-conviction relief will discuss all the discrepancies supporters of the Fairbanks Four have discovered, Oberly said.
"This is really a case where cultures clashed," Oberly said. "There were alibi witnesses for all four of them, of various strengths, who said, 'This is what this guy was doing when this supposedly happened.' ... The alibi witnesses were all from the Native community, and the prosecutor kind of poo-pooed 'em. And the jury didn't accept the alibi witnesses. I think that stung the Native community who felt like they should've had the credibility they should've had."
Event organizer April Monroe-Frick called it "systemized racism." Those at the rally, who were mostly Alaska Native, recognized that the Fairbanks Four case represented familiar problems their people faced, Monroe-Frick said.
"This is the type of corruption that stole people's children," she said. "We don't want our children to be in that position."
Diane Titus, who drove more than six hours from Tanacross, echoed the sentiment shared by those at the rally who did not have personal connections to the case. Titus and others said they felt that the case was an example of the Alaska justice system continuing to incarcerate Alaska Natives unfairly.
"We need to get the message out that we need to dig in more to this system. It should better serve people, not just Native people. All people," Titus said.
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.
By CASEY GROVE