A hearing re-examining long questioned murder convictions opened in state court in Fairbanks today. A group of Native men, who’ve come to be known as the Fairbanks Four, were convicted of the October 1997 beating of 15 year old John Hartman on a downtown street, but new evidence has leveraged another look.
Alaska Natives George Frese, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent, and American Indian Kevin Pease, were convicted of killing John Hartman by juries in two separate trails, but their case has long been plagued by allegations of sub-par forensics, coerced confessions, unreliable witnesses, and even racism.
Fairbanks Four supporters rallied outside the courthouse where attorneys, lead by the Alaska Innocence Project introduced a key witness. William Holmes, a man serving double life sentences for other killings, says a group of his friends, not the Fairbanks Four, beat John Hartman in a random attack.
Testifying Monday, Holmes describes himself as the driver, who dropped off three friends, who ran out of sight after Hartman, then returned a few minutes in an agitated state.
“… Excited, out of breath… all of that. And I was asking them, ‘What happened? What happened?’ And they just kept saying ‘Little J was trippin’, he stomped him out. Little J was trippin’; he stomped him out.’ So I looked over at Jason Wallace and I said, ‘Man, what happened?’ And he was just kinda looking like — he didn’t say anything. He was just in his own, looking forward. (He) didn’t respond.”
Holmes former friend Jason Wallace, who’s also serving life for an unrelated murder, told a public defender agency employee about the incident in 2003, claiming he was just the driver, a recently unveiled rendition of the story that will come up later in the month long hearing.
State prosecutor Adrienne Bachman acknowledges new evidence in the case, adding she’s also plans to bring forward witnesses, including an Alaska Native cab driver who says she saw the Fairbanks Four near where Hartman was found dying in the snow.
“And she describes the unusual haircut of Kevin Pease, the face of Marvin Roberts, and the elusive — or evasive — action of two other boys who she perceives are Native or Asian.”
Bachman says the witness who may appear later in the hearing, describes feeling a catch in her spirit, knowing something was amiss.