The convictions of four Native men in the 1997 fatal beating of a 15-year-old boy are being reviewed by the Alaska attorney general’s office, also known as the Department of Law.
Families and other supporters of the so-called Fairbanks Four have long contended that the men are innocent. Those contentions were bolstered recently by the confession of a former Fairbanks man now serving a life sentence for murder in California.
Hoping for their convictions to be overturned are Alaska Natives George Frese, 36; Marvin Roberts, 35; and Eugene Vent, 33; and Kevin Pease, 35, who is Crow. Ages 20, 19 and 17 at the time of the crime, they are serving sentences ranging from 33 to 64 years.
“This has been 16 years of a nightmare for me, and this [is] the happiest day of my life,” said Hazel Roberts Mayo, mother of Marvin Roberts, at a press conference after the new evidence was introduced.
“When they come home it will be the happiest one, but right now, you can’t imagine how happy I am. I waited for 16 years and I fought for my son for 16 years, and it’s paying off. I knew he was innocent from day one.”
The night of the fatal beating, October 10, 1997, the four – who knew each other from high school – had attended separate house parties and a wedding reception at the Eagles Hall. According to their testimony and the testimony of others, only two of the four hung out together that night.
That same night, about a mile away, John Hartman was hanging out with friends. After 1 a.m., he walked home by himself from a friend’s apartment. At 2:50 a.m. on October 11, a motorist found Hartman lying half in the street, at 9th Avenue and Barnette Street. It was a third-mile north of where he and a friend had parted. He had been beaten and his head stomped. He died October 12 at 6:37 p.m.
The convictions, in three separate trials, rested on two confessions obtained by police using a controversial interrogation method; and on the testimony of Arlo Olson, who had been drinking at the same wedding reception and said he saw the four rob Frank Dayton, another reception guest, as Dayton walked home.
Frese and Vent recanted their confessions, and some of Frese’s statements were ruled inadmissible as evidence.
Frese was held for questioning after he went to the hospital complaining of a sprained ankle; he said he injured it at home while horsing around with a friend. Vent was held for questioning after an altercation with a hotel clerk during a party at a motor inn.
“They all had alibi witnesses, but there was kind of an underlying implication that those [witnesses] are not believable,” said Bill Oberly of the Alaska Innocence Project, which is working to prove the men’s innocence.
Fingerprints and DNA collected at the crime scene, scrapings from the victim’s fingernails, and clothes and footwear collected from the suspects failed to connect them to the crime.
Similar crimes had occurred that evening, but no other suspects were sought or questioned.
In addition, the veracity of Olson’s testimony is questionable; he testified that he was able to identify the four men, two of whom he didn’t know, from 550 feet away in the dark. He later recanted, but then later said he stood by his statement.
The Tenana Chiefs Conference asked for help from the Alaska Innocence Project, a non-profit corporation that provides legal services to identify and exonerate individuals who have been wrongfully convicted in the state of Alaska. Independent innocence projects across the United States have helped exonerate 311 inmates, according to the Alaska innocence Project website.
“We have done an extensive investigation over about a five-year period,” Oberly said at the press conference. “This investigation has led us to identification of a person who we contacted and talked to on the phone, traded letters, and finally interviewed in person who gave us an affidavit and an interview as to what actually happened the night of October 11, 1997 in Fairbanks and who was actually involved. It was this individual, William Z. Holmes, and four other individuals, none of whom were members of the Fairbanks Four.”
Oberly told Indian Country Today Media Network that Holmes provided the sworn statement in 2012, and that the Alaska Innocence Project spent the ensuing year corroborating the facts. Holmes is serving a life sentence for the murder of two people in California on Christmas Eve 2002.
In his sworn statement, Holmes wrote that he and four high school friends were driving around downtown to harass “drunk Natives” by throwing eggs at them or getting out of the car and punching them and then driving away.
“The thrill came from running away, speeding off and messing with these drunks barely able to walk,” he wrote. Then, they saw a “white boy walking alone.” During that confrontation, one of the men stomped repeatedly on the victim's head; the affidavit identifies a suspect allegedly responsible for the stomping.
In a separate sworn statement, another former classmate of Holmes’ corroborated Holmes’ story, saying Holmes told him about the fatal beating shortly after it happened. Oberly said he can’t disclose an additional piece of evidence submitted to the Department of Law, but characterized it as additional corroborating evidence.
In a statement on his website, Alaska Attorney General Michael C. Geraghty said his department is confident that all four convictions were properly obtained based upon the evidence presented at the trials, but “the department believes a review of this new information is warranted.”
The department is conducting an independent review, with the cooperation of the state Department of Public Safety, the Fairbanks Police Department and the Fairbanks District Attorney’s Office, Alaska State Troopers, and the Alaska Bureau of Investigation. Once the investigation is completed, the findings will be submitted to the Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals in the Department of Law.
“We rejoice that the truth is spoken today, but it’s a day we also grieve because we know at the heart of this case there is a young victim who lost his life to senseless violence,” said Shirley Lee, chairwoman of the Tenana Chiefs Conference Justice Task Force, at the press conference.
Lee said the new evidence “brings light to a case made dark by things done and left undone … We pray that those in authority in dealing with this new information will work diligently and [in] good faith and conscience to see that truth and justice are served.”