Journalist who broke Fairbanks Four case unsatisfied after their release

The letters seemed outlandish. But Brian O'Donoghue went to the courthouse to check them out, part of his job in 2000 as the opinion page editor at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. What he found wouldn't let him go: the story of four young men convicted of murder on flimsy evidence.

On Thursday, their convictions were vacated and the Fairbanks Four were finally released after 18 years in prison. O'Donoghue joined the celebration but said the job's not done.

"I am not satisfied with the deal the state cut, which essentially is designed to deflect attention from the systemic failures that put them in prison, kept them in prison, and the prosecutorial misconduct that continued all the way through this post-conviction relief," O'Donoghue said.

No one should be satisfied. The state held George Frese, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease and Marvin Roberts long after evidence of their guilt had evaporated, then agreed to release them only if they agreed not to sue for compensation. Attorney General Craig Richards approved the agreement.

If you or I imprison innocent people unless they agree to drop claims against us, that is called extortion.

"If it had been an even playing field, they certainly would not have given up their right to sue," said Bill Oberly, who represented the men for the Alaska Innocence Project. "The guys were in prison and they had a chance to get out, so they gave up their claims."

More important than compensation are accountability and changes to a broken justice system. Research has shown that enormous numbers of innocent people are in jail nationally, with 156 death row inmates exonerated so far.

But the state also made the Fairbanks Four agree that their prosecution was proper. Richards and Gov. Bill Walker's office said Friday that the agreement means no review of the case or potential misconduct is necessary.

In Alaska, the falsely imprisoned need incredible luck to get out. They need someone like O'Donoghue.

If he had stayed at the newspaper, he couldn't have spent the time that he did on the case. But O'Donoghue became a journalism professor for the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2001 and started using the Fairbanks Four as a class project to teach students about investigative reporting, using court records and persistence.

Students broke news, including uncovering jury misconduct, and found new investigative leads. They traveled around the state. They made breakthroughs gathering evidence and sifting it, learning to work as a team. Sometimes they toiled for a semester and found nothing. But as the years passed, O'Donoghue kept on the case whenever he had appropriate students and time to work on it.

He's known for persistence. A reporter in Alaska for 29 years, O'Donoghue finished the Iditarod and Yukon Quest in the 1990s, coming in last both times (and he wrote two books about the experiences: "Honest Dogs" and "My Lead Dog Was a Lesbian").

"This whole case has reminded me of something you just have to keep moving forward on," he said. "If you think something's important, you have to finish it. I was determined I was never going to scratch in one of those races unless I was medevacked. I wasn't going to let anything stop me."

Various lawyers worked on the cases but the many appeals and reviews repeatedly failed. The jury misconduct that O'Donoghue's students uncovered persuaded a judge to order a new trial in 2004, but five years later the Alaska Supreme Court overruled that decision.

O'Donoghue said each court would rule on tiny issues, finding that none, by itself, was enough to overturn the convictions.

"As a journalist looking at the institution from the outside, you're looking at the whole picture, you're not looking at minute procedural questions," he said. "You're looking at how does it all add up, and does it pass the smell test? And no, it did not."

Now the Department of Law seems to agree. But until Thursday, based on the same evidence, it fought every step of the way.

Oberly, the attorney who is the entire staff of the Alaska Innocence Project, made the case one of his organization's first projects six years ago, encouraged by O'Donoghue's network and research. He turned up critical witnesses. Earlier this year, Oberly recruited Bob Bundy of Dorsey & Whitney in Anchorage to join the cause.

Mike Grisham of Dorsey & Whitney said the national firm of 550 lawyers made the case a priority for its pro bono spending, absorbing costs and working without fees. Four attorneys worked full time during a hearing that lasted more than five weeks, and put in hours over many months of preparation, with help from five other offices around the country. The Alaska Office of Public Advocacy also contributed two attorneys.

By that time, the state troopers' own cold case investigators had thrown doubt on the convictions. They became witnesses for the defense.

It shouldn't have taken this kind of multimillion-dollar effort. Walker should find out what prosecutors did wrong. Saying that's unnecessary because of the defendants' forced agreement is absurd. He ducked the question of whether the agreement was fair, saying he wasn't involved in the negotiations.

These answers matter. The system is already stacked against the poor. Prosecutors who care more about covering up their own errors than administering justice make it much worse. No one should have to hope for a Brian O'Donoghue or Bill Oberly to get them out of prison, because that doesn't happen very often.

In fact, it has happened only once. Oberly said the Fairbanks Four are the only defendants to ever get out of an Alaska prison on a claim of actual innocence.

And it started with O'Donoghue reading a questionable letter to the editor.

"It would not have happened without him," Grisham said, adding that he met O'Donoghue's daughter at the celebration Thursday and told her, "Your dad did a great thing."

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times a week.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.