Monday, November 9, 2015

Fairbanks Four ‘Upbeat’ As Evidentiary Hearings Near Conclusion

Four Alaska Native men hoping to be exonerated of the 1997 beating death of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman are confident their innocence is being proven by evidence and testimony provided this month in a series of hearings.

“The evidence we are presenting is really cumulative, and each builds on the last,” said Bill Oberly of the Alaska Innocence Project, which is assisting the defense for George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent. “We have the confession of William Holmes as the starting point and have built on that. We supported his confession with corroborating evidence and then presented evidence that the initial convictions were baseless … The petitioners remain upbeat about how the case is going.”

Four weeks of evidentiary hearings began October 5 in Fairbanks. At the conclusion of the hearings, Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle could rule that the four men deserve a new trial, or, as supporters hope, he could rule they are innocent and order them immediately released.

The Alaska Innocence Project, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and others contend the men – known as the Fairbanks Four – were victims of a racially-tinged rush to judgment by police and prosecutors eager for a conviction for Hartman’s death.

Supporters say the four men – three Alaska Native, one Native American – were convicted based on two confessions, later recanted, obtained by police using a controversial interrogation method; and on testimony from a witness who identified the four men as being involved in another robbery that evening, although the witness had been drinking and he saw the robbery from 550 feet away in the dark. He later recanted his testimony, then said he stood by it, then recanted it again.

The men, teenagers at the time of the deadly assault, had alibis backed by witnesses. No DNA evidence or other physical evidence linked them to the crime. Two of the men rejected plea bargains in return for testimony against the others. Frese’s requests to take a lie detector test were rejected by the state, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

Following conviction, Pease was sentenced to 77 years, Frese 75, Vent 39, and Roberts 33.

Efforts to prove the men’s innocence were bolstered in 2011 by a detailed confession from William Z. Holmes, a Fairbanks man serving a double life sentence in a California prison for two drug-related murders; he later passed a polygraph examination regarding his account. The confession corroborated a statement about Hartman’s death that Holmes associate Jason Wallace made to his own public defender as he prepared for trial in 2003 for another murder.

Holmes claims he was driving four friends around, looking for “drunk Natives” to harass, when they came upon a white teenager walking alone at 9th Avenue and Barnette Street. Holmes said he stayed in the car while the four jumped out and assaulted and robbed the teen.

Holmes wrote that when the four returned to the car, three said Wallace had stomped on the teen’s head until they stopped him. They later read in the newspaper that the teen died and that four Native teens had been arrested for the crime.

Those statements led to a petition for post-conviction relief, legalese for an opportunity to contest and try to reverse the conviction.


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