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Nagging questions and conflicting claims highlight Fairbanks Four case

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 26, 2015

The attorney wanted to know whether his client had a clear memory of exactly what he did and where he went in Fairbanks on Oct. 10-11, 1997.

"It's pretty clear," said Marvin Roberts, testifying in Fairbanks Superior Court Monday. Attorney Bill Oberly asked why he could be so sure.

"I've had about 18 years to think about it," said Roberts.

Until his release to a halfway house this past summer, Roberts had spent those 18 years behind bars, maintaining all the while that he is not a killer.

The exchange took place Monday as an extraordinary court hearing entered its fourth week in Fairbanks, a closely watched proceeding that has raised troubling questions about justice in Alaska.

Supporters of Roberts and the three other men known as the "Fairbanks Four" have crowded into the fifth-floor courtroom each day, while a long line of witnesses challenged the credibility of the process that put the men in prison for a 1997 murder. The state began what is expected to be a week-and-a-half presentation Monday, defending the original verdicts.

Attorneys for the four men convicted in the beating death of 15-year-old John Hartman built their case for exoneration by identifying a group of other young men as the real killers, and claiming a pattern of police misconduct in which biased interrogations of two drunk young men and lies took the place of a thorough investigation. Alibi witnesses and experts disputed nearly all of the key claims that led to the convictions during three trials more than 15 years ago. To the extent that the Native American men incriminated themselves by their statements, they said they did so only because of undue pressure by the police.

The case is not a trial, but an evidentiary hearing with no jury. The challenge facing Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle is a formidable one -- deciding if the new evidence is enough to show that the state convicted the wrong men for Hartman's killing. Lyle could rule that the innocence of the men has been established with the new hearing or that they deserve new trials or that there is not enough evidence to overturn convictions.

When the hearing ends and he takes on the task of weighing the evidence, one of his many tasks will be to determine which of the statements made by key witnesses will be allowed or disallowed under the exemptions to court rules that limit the admissibility of hearsay testimony.

Roberts, a man with close-cropped black hair who wears a moosehide vest daily in court, answered questions both from his attorney and the prosecutor in a matter-of-fact manner, rarely showing any emotion. His answers were concise and to the point as he recounted the wedding reception he attended that October night and retraced his steps.

The jury verdicts in Anchorage trials against Roberts and the others were based on charges that the four of them stopped near Ninth Avenue and Barnette Street in the early morning hours of Oct. 11, 1997, and attacked the boy, who later died of his injuries. The four men insisted that they were never in a car together that night and that the case against them was largely manufactured by city police.

"I remember being scared and confused," Roberts said about his interrogation. "They kept trying to say I was doing violent things. I kept telling them, 'I wasn't there.'"

"I knew I was innocent. I kept telling them that," he said. While Roberts kept saying he was never at Ninth and Barnette that night, the prosecutor said he testified that he had repeatedly driven by there that night. He said he never stopped.

He has attended the entire proceeding in court, while the three other men -- Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent and George Frese -- listened by teleconference from behind bars, except for the days on which they testified that they did not kill Hartman and were never together in a car that night.

State prosecutors began presenting their case Monday, with a former driver for King Cab saying that she drove by the spot where Hartman was killed on a date that she believes was the night in question and she saw two men. Veronica Solomon said she paid close attention to their faces and while she never looked at pictures of the men until about 2005, she believes the men she saw were Roberts and Pease.

The theory about the real killers centers on two men convicted of other murders who are in prison. One of the men, William Holmes, claims he was the driver of the car and that his passengers were the real killers, led by Jason Wallace, a former friend of Holmes'. Wallace became the chief witness who testified in the unrelated case that ended for Holmes with a double-life sentence for murder.

Wallace is reported to have made statements heard by others that he drove the car, not Holmes, and that his former friend was among those who beat Hartman. Neither man has confessed to being Hartman's killer. Complicating the matter is that the state has granted immunity to Wallace to require him to testify, meaning that he cannot be prosecuted for what he says in court. Wallace is expected to testify later this week.

The judge will have to decide the credibility of the two men and weigh the value of their statements.

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