The Alaska Department of Law has ordered an independent review of new information in a recent court filing challenging the convictions of four native men in the beating death of John Hartman, who was found dead in 1997.  The new filing is the latest in the more than a decade old, racially charged case.

The four men known as the Fairbanks Four are George Frese, 36, Marvin Roberts, 35, Kevin Pease, 35, and Eugene Vent, 33.  They have always maintained their innocence.

This newly discovered evidence and newly raised questions by Alaska journalism students and their professor, Brian O’Donoghue, the story most people have known since 1997 is the one that the Fairbanks Police Department told the jury.  Early on October 11, 1997, a man driving by discovered Hartman’s body.  Hartman was not quite a freshman at West Valley High School.  Police later determined that someone kicked Hartman in the head a dozen times.  Doctors had to take Hartman off life-support the next day because he was brain dead.  Detectives developed a theory that Frese, Roberts, Pease, and Vent were on a drunken joyride after attending a wedding and mugged Hartman and another man.  The idea first came from the medical examiner who noticed boot tread on Hartman’s face and a detective who compared that to Frese’s boot.  Police later said that Frese and Vent confessed in their interrogations.  Attorneys for the men say those confessions were false and coerced gained through unreliable and dubious interviewing techniques not used anymore because of past wrongful convictions.  A witness who testified told the jury that he saw the men attack a different man downtown and rob him.  There was no physical evidence putting the men at the murder scene, but prosecutors were still able to convince jurors in three separate trials that the four men randomly attacked and killed Hartman.

A court filing by the Alaska Innocence Project, 16 years after the murder, revealed why the Fairbanks Four may be innocent:  William Holmes, another man, said in a sworn affidavit that he and a group of high schoolers killed Hartman.  Holmes, 33, is serving life in prison for killing two people in California, a drug connected crime that took place after Hartman’s murder.

In a written statement released Thursday, the Department of Law said Alaska State Troopers will conduct the probe,

“Although there has never been any credible or serious allegation about the integrity of the investigation, or the prosecution, which led to these convictions, the department will conduct an independent review,” the statement says.

They went on to point out that the Fairbanks Four have lost all of their appeals and that the Alaska Supreme Court has refused to hear them.

“The Department of Law remains confident that all four convictions were properly obtained based upon the evidence presented at the trials,” the statement says. “Notwithstanding, doubts have been expressed in the community where these crimes occurred, and the department believes a review of this new information is warranted.”

Findings from the Alaska State Trooper review, in cooperation with the Fairbanks Police Department and the Fairbanks District Attorney, will go to the Alaska Special Prosecutions and Appeals department.  This process will take longer than the amount of time that prosecutors have to file a response to this new information in court.  Prosecutors said they would seek an extension of the 45-day deadline.

“These things can go on a long time,” said Bill Oberly, executive director of the Alaska Innocence Project. “Sometimes they get addressed right away, sometimes it’s longer…”It’s not a short street.  It’s a long road.”

Oberly also said that the state’s tone is disappointing, “We hope the negative tone of their press release is not indicative of their approach to this case. We are all interested in seeing justice done.”

Criminal Division Director John Skidmore said the review could take months and that it would include an attempt to verify the accuracy of facts presented by the Innocence Project and examine legal questions.  The Innocence Project’s filing says that Lathrop High School graduate William Holmes was driving his mother’s maroon Ford Tempo with four other classmates.  They were all 17 year olds looking for drunken Alaskan Natives to harass, beat up, and rob for fun.  The time when Hartman was killed was the first weekend after the Permanent Fund Dividends were delivered to Alaskans’ bank accounts.  Holmes said they usually would fight them or throw things at them.  They chased two drunken men into an alley and then proceeded to drive around for another 20 minutes before they found a “white boy” whose pockets they wanted to empty.

“Everyone got excited and said, ‘We got one,'” Holmes wrote.

Holmes has named the other men who he is implicating as the real perpetrators, but their names are not being released.  He says he stopped the car and the other four jumped out while he parked the car.  As he got out to join them they ran back to the car and yelled, “Go, go!”

“As we drove away from the scene, (name omitted) was in the front and the other three were in the back seat yelling hysterically. I asked what happened and all three in the back seat simultaneously told me that after knocking the boy down, (name omitted) began stomping him repeatedly,” Holmes wrote.

Holmes writes that he later saw a news article that four Natives had been arrested and, “I realized that we could keep from being held responsible for what had happened to this boy.”

“Mentally, I have lived as if that night never happened since that time,” Holmes wrote from a California prison, having been convicted of killing two people five years after Hartman. “I was able to observe the boy cross the street in front of us and got a good look at him. He matched the pictures and the descriptions I later saw of John Hartman and I am sure the boy who was chased down and stomped that night was John Hartman.”

Holmes, the man who has now confessed, says that he and the others vowed to never tell anyone what happened.  Holmes, who has little to lose, while serving two life sentences, says he isn’t going to keep that promise anymore.  He wrote that Roberts, serving 33 years, wrote to him upon hearing that he may know something.  Holmes says he doesn’t benefit from this and in fact, may be held accountable for Hartman’s murder.  Holmes does not know the four men who were convicted.  A second affidavit is from former Lathrop student, Scott Davison, 34, who says that the man Holmes identified as stomping Hartman in the head until he died admitted it to him.  A few days after Hartman died, Davison and another kid skipped school to smoke marijuana.

“We were riding around Fairbanks when (name omitted) said to Matt and me that he had been involved in the attack on John Hartman,” Davison wrote. “They approached the individual on Barnette Street, beat and kicked him and left him on the side of the road. (Name omitted) then said if we told anyone about what he had said about the Hartman assault, he would kill both of us…I have carried this information with me since 1997, knowing that four innocent people were in jail for a crime they had not committed. I make this statement voluntarily in the hopes that this injustice will be corrected.”

The Innocence Project is seeking new trials for three of the four men:  Frese, Roberts, and Pease.  In Vent’s case, a similar filing is expected soon.  All four of the convicted men went to Howard Luke, an alternative high school and were basketball players.  Three of them are from Athabascan village families.  Oberly said the initial investigation into Hartman’s death took five years and was “long and arduous.”

“What we filed was a document claiming newly discovered evidence that established the actual innocence of our clients.”

“This has been 16 years of a nightmare for me and this is the happiest day of my life, well when they come home it will be the happiest, but right now you can’t imagine how happy I am,” said Hazel Roberts Mayo, Roberts’ mother.

The Innocence Project says that Holmes is telling the true story of what happened to Hartman that night when he was murdered.  The Innocence Project asked state officials to keep in mind, while they are investigating, that the lives of four men hang in the balance.

“We are sure that they will find as we have found that the evidence that is contained in this document and the evidence that’s out there proves that Marvin, George, Eugene and Kevin are innocent and that we will prevail in that regard,” said Oberly.

Oberly says that during their investigation, Holmes seemed believable, and that the four other people he named will not cooperate.  Two are in prison on other murder charges and two are not.  Oberly said that he decided not to contact the two in prison “for fear that we might in some way harm the police investigation we hope arises…” The other two didn’t want to be questioned by the Project.  “It doesn’t make sense that he would make this up,” Oberly said. “I decided on a different tack. I had Marvin Roberts write William Holmes a letter, saying ‘I’m in prison for a crime I didn’t commit. We have information that you might know something about this.'”  Four months later, Oberly wrote Holmes and then a few more months later, he wrote him again.  Holmes finally wrote them back, starting the entire process and kickstarting the men’s innocence assertion.

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