An evidentiary hearing is scheduled to begin Monday in state court in Fairbanks in the case of four Fairbanks men seeking exoneration from convictions for a nearly two-decade old murder. George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent and Kevin Pease, men known as the “Fairbanks Four”, were convicted of the October 1997 beating death of 15-year-old John Hartman on a downtown street. Evidence brought forward in recent years points to others being responsible for the killing, and it will be laid out during the hearing.
The hearing before Judge Paul Lyle comes at the request of the Alaska Innocence Project, which has been working the case for several years. The Innocence Project attorney would not discuss the upcoming hearing, but longtime case follower, University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism professor Brian O’Donahue likens it to a non-jury trial in which Judge Lyle will determine what evidence is admissible, and then hear it in the courtroom.
“And then he will be the one who decides whether or not the Fairbanks Four are entitled to not just a new trial, but he’s actually been asked to decide whether or not it’s justified to issue declarations of actual innocence.”
O’Donahue, who’s shepherded an exhaustive student investigation of the case, describes the innocence declaration as uncharted legal ground in Alaska, noting there is federal precedence. He expects the scheduled month long hearing to bring forward key players in the long contested murder case.
“The Innocence Project’s case is founded most persuasively on the confession of an inmate, William Holmes. Holmes is going to testify, in person, the first opening week of this trial. He’s expected to take the stand on Monday.
O’Donahue says others named by Holmes as involved in what Holmes depicts as a street attack, may also take the stand in a case O’Donahue describes as stranger than fiction.
“Who would believe that 18 years later, we would have a parade of witnesses… essentially, completely challenging convictions that resulted from one of the highest profile crimes Fairbanks has ever seen.”
It’s unclear whether any of the Fairbanks Four, three of whom are Alaska Native and the other American Indian, will be in the courtroom. Fairbanks Four advocate April Monroe Frick says the Native community and other supporters are raising money so that the men can attend the hearing in person.
“The state has been ordered by the courts to bring George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent and Kevin Pease here to Fairbanks. However they have refused to transport them from the jail to the courtroom and have guards there. They said they’re unwilling to pay the costs associated with that.”
As of early Friday an online fundraising sites had garnered enough donations to cover the cost of having them there for opening day. A rally in support of the Fairbanks Four is planned for Monday at noon at the downtown Rabinowitz Courthouse. The state attorney working the case did not respond to an interview request in time for this story.