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Fairbanks Four Hearings Over, Now the Wait Begins

The fate of the Fairbanks Four lies on the shoulders of Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle who has heard five-and-a-half-weeks of testimony.

Almost 20 years after separate juries convicted them of a beating death they say they never committed, four Alaska Native men’s hope for exoneration rests with one individual: Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle.

Lyle must determine if the evidence presented in a five-and-a-half-week hearing that concluded November 11 clearly and convincingly proved that the men, known as the Fairbanks Four, are innocent or deserve a new trial. He could also determine that the evidence did not and uphold their convictions.

If deemed innocent, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent will be immediately released from prison; Marvin Roberts was paroled in June. If a new trial is ordered, Frese, Pease and Vent could be allowed to post bail. If their convictions are upheld, Vent will remain behind bars until August 2019. Frese and Pease will be elderly men when they are released on June 12, 2050 and June 13, 2042, respectively.

Two things are certain, according to sources: One, a decision isn’t coming any time soon; Lyle expects to rule in summer 2016, after reviewing transcripts and evidence from the original trials and the latest hearing. Two, either way he rules, an appeal is likely.

The four men claim they were wrongfully convicted of the October 11, 1997 fatal beating of John Hartman, a non-Native teenager. The Alaska Innocence Project, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and others contend the men were victims of a racially-tinged rush to judgment by police and prosecutors eager for a conviction for Hartman’s death.

Police began to piece the case together on October 12 when Frese went to the hospital complaining of a foot injury after a night of drinking games, although he couldn’t recall exactly how he injured his foot. In the same hospital at the time was Hartman, with injuries from being stomped on the head. Hartman died that night.

In the course of their investigation, police obtained two confessions, later recanted, using a controversial interrogation method; and testimony from a witness – Arlo Olson – who identified the four men as being involved in another robbery that evening, although he had been drinking and he saw the robbery from 550 feet away in the dark. Olson later recanted his testimony, then said he stood by it, then recanted it again.

Alibi witnesses placed the four men, teenagers at the time, at different places the evening of the fatal assault. No DNA evidence or other physical evidence linked the men 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.

‘False evidence ploy’

Frese and Vent confessed after lengthy interrogations in which false evidence was presented linking them to the Hartman assault – what former FBI agent Gregg McCrary, an expert on behavioral criminology, called a "false evidence ploy."

McCrary testified that detectives told Vent his shoe prints were found in blood at the scene where Hartman was attacked. “In reality, no evidence like that was discovered at the scene,” KTUU-TV reported.

At the evidentiary hearing, Frese testified that he repeatedly told investigators he “didn’t remember” or “didn’t know” answers to their questions. Then, “They’re telling me that Eugene puts me there, that Kevin started it, that I was there, that I must’ve kicked him, you know …,” Frese said in testimony reported by Alaska Public Media. “And they asked me about Marvin a couple times after that and I’m saying, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’ and they say, ‘Marvin was driving?’ and I say, ‘Yeah, sure … you know, whatever. Whatever you want.' ”

The American Bar Association reported in 2012 that the persuasive power of confession evidence “poses a particularly acute problem for juvenile defenders. Why? Children and teenagers are particularly likely to react to the pressures of police interrogation by making involuntary or false confessions. This reality was first recognized in U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence 45 years ago in In re Gault (1967), which famously noted that ‘authoritative opinion has cast formidable doubt upon the reliability and trustworthiness of confessions by children.’”

Holmes’ confession

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, a student at Lathrop High School at the time, 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.

Holmes wrote a detailed confession 14 years later after sharing information with a prison officer, who told him he should be true to his Christian faith and come forward. Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman, however, contended that Holmes’ confession was motivated by revenge against Wallace because of Wallace’s testimony against him in Holmes’ murder trial – testimony that yielded Wallace a 70-year sentence instead of life without parole.

In her closing argument November 11, defense attorney Kate Demarest upheld Holmes’ confession, saying his “path to this court is consistent with that of a man who, despite having murdered two people in cold blood, finally decided to do something right for a change.”

Regarding the veracity of Holmes’ confession, she added, “What are the chances that Bill Holmes, all these years later, was able to choose this crime from the distant past and accurately remember exactly where he actually was that same night in order to present a complete and coherent story that his classmates would corroborate? We submit to the court that the chance of that is zero.”

Wallace fought to keep sealed, citing attorney-client privilege, comments he reportedly made to his public defender about Hartman’s death as he was preparing for his 2002 murder trial. The Alaska Innocence Project learned of those comments and say they corroborate Holmes’ confession.

Under questioning in the evidentiary hearing, Wallace repeated took the Fifth. Lyle granted Wallace transactional immunity in exchange for his testimony, but on the stand Wallace testified that he knew nothing of the events of October 11, 1997.

Olson’s testimony

During the evidentiary hearing, Olson testified that his damning testimony was “carefully and deliberately manipulated” by Fairbanks Police Detective Aaron Ring and Prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant in an attempt to connect the four men to a robbery on First Avenue the same night as the fatal beating of Hartman, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

Olson “described an unrecorded interview process where Ring filled in [each] ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I guess’ and ‘I don’t remember’ with plausible suggestions, which included them showing him a vehicle he didn’t recognize as the one that was used” in another robbery that evening, on First Avenue.

Under questioning by Bachman, Olson said he regretted his trial testimony because he doesn’t think the four men were responsible for Hartman’s death.

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An Alaska state trooper testified how he, another trooper and Bachman had revisited the place of the First Avenue robbery in order to test Olson’s testimony. Olson’s testimony is important because, if true, it contradicts alibi witnesses’ testimony and puts the four men together that night.

The trooper testified that during the test, they were not able to identify someone from 550 feet away in the dark. Bachman said she was able to make an ID from that distance, but the trooper countered, “You did not indicate that to me. All you said was ‘Oh my God, oh my God,’ and I didn’t know what you meant by that.”

Bachman did not respond to questions from ICTMN.

In her closing arguments, Bachman bolstered the veracity of Olson’s original trial testimony, saying he never claimed to identify the four men by their facial features, but recognized them by “height, weight, comportment, familiarity” and car.

One prosecution witness, a cab driver at the time of the Hartman assault, testified that she saw who she believed to be Roberts and Pease together that night in a beige four-door car. But Roberts, the only one of the four at the time with a car, drove a blue two-door.

Identification by ‘accent’

Bachman also revisited a controversial method of identifying a suspect – based on accent and ethnicity -- in recounting the 1998 testimony of a women’s shelter resident who claimed to have heard “dark” voices and another voice plead for help the night of the Hartman assault.

In her closing argument, Bachman said there are gaps in Holmes’ timeline of events, which began at about 11 p.m. “How does that take us to 1:35 a.m. when Melanie Durham hears the drunken Native voices that she describes and everyone concedes is the time of the Hartman assault?”

The reference to “drunken Native voices” disturbed April Monroe, a blogger and advocate for the Fairbanks Four.

In an interview with ICTMN, Monroe said the term “drunk Natives” is disparaging – the Alaska equivalent of the “n” word. The fact that the State used it in describing witness testimony in a hearing shows there’s been little progress on the issue of race in Alaska.

“It was an interesting addition to the theory that witnesses can distinguish Natives in the dark distance by indistinguishable speech – the State expressed their stance that this is also true of African Americans,” she blogged. Of the issue of race in Alaska, she told ICTMN, “From 1997 to 2015, we still haven’t elevated the conversation.”

Bachman might argue that she was just doing her job – trying to point out conflicts in the evidence that the defense presented to show that the Fairbanks Four were wrongfully convicted.

“There are going to become moments in the court’s deliberation on this case where there will not be clear or convincing evidence of many factual assertions in this case,” Bachman told Lyle in her closing arguments November 11. “There are too many conflicts to meet that standard.”

ICTMN FAIRBANKS FOUR COVERAGE

2015

November 2, 2015: Fairbanks Four ‘upbeat’ as evidentiary hearings near conclusion

October 19, 2015: Alaska’s Reluctant Pursuit of Justice: The Fairbanks Four

October 6, 2015: ‘Fairbanks Four’ Seek Truth, Freedom As Evidentiary Hearing Begins

June 29, 2015: Inmate’s Confession Promises New Trials for Fairbanks Four, Roberts Paroled

March 17, 2015: Battle Continues In Effort to Keep Statement Sealed and Fairbanks Four Behind Bars

2014

October 23, 2014: Evidentiary Hearing Scheduled November 10 in Fairbanks Four Case

May 19, 2014: Assistant A.G. Doesn’t Oppose Evidentiary Hearing in Fairbanks Four Case

April 28, 2014: Fairbanks Four Hoping New Evidence Leads to Overturned Convictions

2013

December 5, 2013: 7 Questions With Adrienne Bachman, Fairbanks Four Reviewing Prosecutor

November 17, 2013: Set Them Free? Senator Calls for Swift Review of Fairbanks Four Case

November 8, 2013: New Hope for the ‘Fairbanks Four’