Crime & Courts

Begich calls for 'Fairbanks Four' investigation by federal authorities

Sen. Mark Begich has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for a formal civil rights investigation of the case involving the four men convicted in three separate trials of the 1997 beating death of a Fairbanks teenager.

"It is time for a thorough review of the circumstances of this case by an impartial authority," Begich wrote Holder Thursday, "and I believe the Department of Justice must step in to make sure these men have not been wrongly imprisoned and that John Hartman's killers have been brought to justice."

The four men -- George Frese, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent and Marvin Roberts -- received sentences of from 33 years to 79 years after their convictions. Vent was recently granted parole, to take effect in 2019. Roberts has been granted parole in 2016.

Begich has joined others citing "allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and coercion" and new evidence in connection with the case that "have cast serious doubt on the original convictions."

Begich said he wrote Gov. Sean Parnell more than a year ago about the case, when attorneys and supporters of the four men offered new evidence on their behalf, but he said the "state has presented no findings and provided no sign that it is performing a fair and thorough review."

"Rather, Alaskans have been dismayed that the state has requested delay after delay and attempted to keep information from being publicly disclosed," he said.

Begich said he agrees with Fairbanks Mayor John Eberhart, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and the Alaska Federation of Natives that an outside review is warranted.

A year ago the Alaska Innocence Project filed an affidavit from William Holmes, a convicted murderer, in which he said that he drove the car in which the killers were riding. Holmes said that another convicted murderer, Jason Wallace, whose testimony helped send Holmes to jail in an unrelated case, was the chief culprit in the Hartman case.

Holmes, who is serving a double life sentence in California for other killings, said that the four men in jail for the Hartman murder did not do it. According to Holmes, the four other teenagers in his car got out and knocked the boy down and one of them stomped Hartman to death.

The question of Holmes's credibility is at the center of the debate over whether the Hartman killing should be reopened, along with the handling of documents that have been kept confidential because of the attorney-client privilege. Those documents could lend credence to Holmes's story, according to supporters of the four Fairbanks men still imprisoned.

In May, the state agreed that a hearing should be held on the claims of innocence, but raised questions about Holmes and his motive for speaking out, suggesting that it could be payback for what Wallace did to him.

"He did not hear the assault, he did not see the assault and he did not participate in the assault. At best, he reports that 'according to the other participants,' Jason Wallace assaulted someone while they were briefly out of Holmes' car," the state said.

"A central witness to Holmes' convictions was Jason Wallace, the man Holmes now accuses of being the real killer of John Hartman. Indeed, William Holmes, himself, described Wallace as the 'critical' witness against Holmes," the state said in May.