Process and justice -- are they always the same? In the conviction of the Fairbanks Four that may not be the case. After a 35-year career in Alaska law enforcement I have made a point of not commenting on criminal cases or the justice system itself. The details of this case have prompted me to make an exception.
Years ago the judicial process convicted four young men in the tragic murder of John Hartman. We would all like to believe that justice was served and the process worked as it was intended. We have since learned that is likely not so. The rush to judgment by police investigators created a tunnel vision focus that, at times, resulted in sloppy and questionable police conduct. Two Alaska State Trooper investigators recently developed information that two groups of men, not the Fairbanks Four, were assaulting and robbing people in the Fairbanks area around the time John Hartman was killed. Could this same information have been identified at the time of John Hartman's death? Sadly, we will never know.
The lack of any credible physical evidence in this case required the police and prosecutor to find an eyewitness. And they did. As the prosecutor said during one of the original trials, if the witness had not seen what he said he saw, the State had no case. We now know the witness saw nothing. By his own admission it was dark, a very long distance, he was drunk and high on cocaine and he could not see anything. The disgraceful way he was threatened, pressured and coached to give an eyewitness account that all involved should have known was not true is a reflection on the integrity of the entire investigation and prosecution.
Then of course there are the confessions of two of the original defendants. Why would an innocent man sign a statement saying he had committed murder? Historically, this defies common sense. As it turns out, these two confessions fit a pattern that is fairly typical. A frightened young person, subjected to long hours of interviews, incapacitated to some degree, is manipulated by police into making statements of which the significance he did not understand. A Time magazine commentator said, "If the past few years have taught us anything it's that false confessions are not only possible, but they also happen more often than anyone would think." Various studies and research have found that false confessions occurred in approximately 25 percent of the hundreds of capital cases that have been exonerated.
The voluntary confession of a man in prison for murder in California that he and his friends were the ones who killed John Hartman and the admissions by his accomplice to others shortly after the murder are facts that cannot be ignored. Even though this same group of men matched reports and descriptions of suspects assaulting people who were walking at night in the Fairbanks area, there was no effort to follow up.
The lack of physical evidence, numerous alibi witnesses who were completely discounted, two confessions that are suspect, a single eyewitness who has now admitted he saw nothing and the voluntary confession of the probable killer all make a compelling case for exoneration. I do understand that may be a step too far for the court. At the very least a new trial, and jury, may finally find the truth.
What we have learned in the years since the murder of a 15-year-old boy is that process and justice are probably not one and the same, at least not in this case. Justice for John Hartman and for the Fairbanks Four requires the commitment and courage to acknowledge mistakes and the resolve to find the truth. The only outcome worse than not solving a murder is convicting the wrong person while the real killer goes free.
Ronald Otte served as chief of police for the Anchorage Police Department and Palmer Police Department and is a former commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.
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