About 150 people marched Saturday in Anchorage from Town Square to a powwow at Delaney Park Strip in support of the “Fairbanks Four.” Those are the four Alaska Native or American Indian men convicted in 1999 of murdering teenager John Hartman in Fairbanks.
In 1997, 15-year-old John Hartman was found alive, but brutally beaten on a cold October day in Fairbanks. He lived long enough for his mother to say goodbye. Four men – Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Eugene Vent and Kevin Pease – were charged and convicted of the crime. Rally organizer April Munroe-Frick, who grew up with the four, says they were young – in their late teens and 20s – and had no history of violence.
“This was a brutal, brutal bloody stomping murder. None of these four men had ever exhibited any behavior that would indicate they would commit a crime of this nature,” Munroe-Frick said.
Hazel Roberts’ son Marvin was one of the four.
“I knew right from the start that my son was innocent,” Roberts said. “He wasn’t the type to do something like this. He was the valedictorian of his high school class he got the principal’s award of the year. He was just a good kid.”
Alaska Innocence Project Executive Director Bill Oberly says the four had never met Hartman, and police and prosecutors had little to support their case.
“The assault on John Hartman, there was no one at the scene, so no eye witness, there was no physical evidence collected at the scene,” Oberly said.
Monroe-Frick contends that these convictions were largely influenced by racism, something she says many Alaskans have seen in their own lives:
“People, indigenous and other people throughout the state of Alaska, who know and believe and see in their own lives that there’s an element of systematized racism and inequity in our justice system and that it has destroyed lives,” Monroe-Frick said. “I think that people are here not because the Fairbanks four are special, but because the Fairbanks four are not special, because they see in this story other stories that are familiar with them, and when they see people taking a stand, they want to join..
Samual John, another organizer of Saturday’s event, says he works on behalf of the Fairbanks Four with an eye to the future:
“I think that this is mainly for the Fairbanks Four but it’s also for the next generation so they know that they are worth more than they think they are,” John said.
Sentences for the four ranged from 33 to 79 years. They’ve were serving their time in a Colorado correctional facility, far from family members and friends who might have visited them, until two were recently moved to Alaska prisons. Hazel Roberts is hoping for pardons for the four.
“It’s been a nightmare, but this nightmare will end. I have positive hopes and beliefs that it’s going to end soon,” Roberts said.
Vent contends his trial attorney didn’t represent him competently and fight the trial judge’s ruling to disallow testimony by an expert in coercive police interrogations and false confessions, a decision based on the judge’s own research outside the court. In January, an appeals court gave Vent a chance to argue for an appeal. The court said when a judge conducts and uses research that benefits one party, the unfairness of the resulting decision is apparent.