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Reality Check w/ John Tracy: The troubling case of the Fairbanks Four

By John Tracy 10:03 PM November 5, 2015

Watch enough crime dramas on TV and you can begin to believe that all murders can be solved, and usually in less than an hour. But that’s not how it works in the real world.

For the past several weeks the case of the “Fairbanks Four” has been all but re-tried in a Fairbanks courtroom. And 18 years after the crime, the same question remains: Who killed John Hartman?

Consider the concept of justice. It can mean different things to different people.

It can take a long time to find, and sometimes, almost impossible to know if you’ve found it.

Eighteen years ago in an Anchorage courtroom, four young men were convicted in a brutal Fairbanks murder. The convictions of the so-called Fairbanks Four were considered a symbol of justice to police and prosecutors.

But to others, including many members of Alaska’s Native community, the name Fairbanks Four has become a symbol of injustice.

The four men — George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent — were convicted and sentenced for the beating death in 1997 of 15-year old-John Hartman, left to die on a Fairbanks street.

One of the men, Marvin Roberts, has been released on early parole, but the other three continue to serve sentences of 33 to 64 years.

For the past month at a hearing in Fairbanks, the case has been reopened, and a Fairbanks judge will decide if there’s enough evidence for a new trial, or even to overturn the convictions.

State attorneys say the case against the men has always been solid — a model of detective work. The Alaska Innocence Project says the State’s case has relied almost entirely on a coerced confession.

The State’s star witness at trial, who said he saw the Fairbanks Four attack another man that night, has since recanted.

Here’s what we do know:

There was no evidence at the scene linking any of the men to the crime. No blood on their clothes. No blood or fibers in the car of one of the defendants.

And the confession of an inebriated Vent came only after repeated denials. Detectives eventually told him his bloody footprint was found at the scene — which was untrue — and after more than 11 hours of being told he was guilty, Vent eventually agreed.

At the hearing, a former FBI agent testified that the interrogation was unethical and likely to lead to a false confession.

The best hope for the Fairbanks Four is a jailhouse confession by a convicted killer, who now says he was driving the car that night with the group of real killers.

But the accused is denying it — himself a convicted killer in another case. And it’s hard to know if either is telling the truth.

Police and prosecutors have no desire to send innocent men to prison. They believe in their case as strongly as Fairbanks Four supporters disbelieve it.

18 years after John Hartman’s murder, it will be up to Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle to sift through a long list of alibis, hearsay, and conflicting stories. And in the end, we still may not know with certainty who killed John Hartman.

Because, like I said, justice can take a long time to find and sometimes almost impossible to know if you’ve found it.

John’s opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of Denali Media or its employees. 

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