'Fairbanks Four' murder case deserves immediate state review

The people celebrating outside the Fairbanks courthouse Wednesday afternoon share the conviction that the wrong "boys" are in jail for the murder of 15-year-old John Hartman.

That so many people refer to four men in their 30s as boys reflects a moment frozen in time when juries convicted Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, George Frese and Kevin Pease of murder.

They have grown to the cusp of middle age in prison, while arguments and questions persist about what they did or did not do as young men who were between the ages of 17 and 20 on an October night in 1997.

The state moved their trials to Anchorage because the case dominated the headlines in Fairbanks for months. Thirty-six jurors on three Anchorage juries convicted the four men, and they received jail terms between 33 years and 79 years.

In the years that followed, lawyers for the men filed appeal after appeal, many on procedural grounds, but failed to get the verdicts overturned. The murder was officially solved long ago. But rather than a cold case, the Hartman killing has remained a flashpoint about justice and injustice.

This time the debate is not about procedure, but about an alternative explanation for Hartman's killing, with names and details. Many of the supporters who gathered outside the Fairbanks courthouse this week seemed convinced that the men will soon be set free because documents have been filed.

But nothing about this issue, with the exception of the original arrests, has moved quickly through the justice system. "It's not a short street," said Bill Oberly, the executive director of the Alaska Innocence Project. "It's a long road."


The most important of the court documents filed this week by the Alaska Innocence Project is an affidavit by a convicted murderer, now in California, in which he states that he took part in the killing and that the four men in jail for the crime did not.

By itself, the statement by William Z. Holmes and the supporting documents are not enough to end the debate over Hartman's killing or conclude that the four men should be set free.

Still, the statement warrants a prompt investigation by state prosecutors and the courts.

The evidence needs to be re-examined; the case needs to be reopened.

A statement from the Department of Law, reported by Brian O'Donoghue, the University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism professor who has studied this case for more than a decade and questioned its handling, reflects a wait-and-see attitude from officialdom.

"While the parallel convictions in three separate trials provides compelling evidence indicating the correct individuals were held accountable, any new information which may be provided by the Innocence Project should and will be thoroughly reviewed and investigated," the attorney general's office said.

The assertion about compelling evidence showing the "correct individuals were held accountable" is to be expected, as anything less would be tantamount to an admission that the system has failed before the alternative explanation is scrutinized by someone other than advocates for the four men in jail.

In any case, Holmes' chilling matter-of-fact accounting is new information that deserves an immediate investigation by the attorney general and the courts.

"While at a stop sign or red light, awaiting to turn left to hit Airport Way, we see a white boy walking alone from the direction of Airport Way," he wrote in a letter dated Aug. 20, 2012. "We all get excited and say, 'We got one!' I pull across the street and stop abruptly."

According to Holmes, the four other teenagers in his car jumped out, knocked the boy down and one of them stomped Hartman to death. The original explanation for the Hartman crime, that he was a victim of a random and senseless attack by kids of high school age, remains the only one offered, though other names have been put forward as culprits.

"Mentally I lived as if that night never happened," Holmes wrote. Oberly said Holmes has nothing to gain by fabricating a story.

"One might question the veracity of someone who's in prison, you also have to ask why would he come forward? It doesn't make sense that he would make this up," Oberly said.

The task for state investigators now is difficult but straightforward -- find out if Holmes, a convicted murderer doing life without parole, is telling the truth.

If he is, four men have been in jail for a crime they did not commit nearly 16 years ago.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @DermotMCole

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.