Legal experts share what it was like to work on Fairbanks Four case
Wednesday night, the public got an inside look at the murder case that captivated Alaskans for nearly two decades.
The University of Alaska Anchorage hosted a forum at the Consortium Library on the Fairbanks Four, with a panel made up of some of the attorneys and investigators responsible for getting three of the four men their freedom last year after 18 years in prison.
George Frese, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent, and Marvin Roberts were convicted in the 1997 murder of John Hartman. Pease, Frese and Vent have been free for about three months now, while Roberts was out on parole when the decision came down to free them. Many have said their case points to a complete failure of the justice system, and their lawyers want to keep the conversation going.
A packed room heard from Bill Oberly, the executive director of the Alaska Innocence Project; Rick Allen, director the Office of Public Advocacy; and Lesley Hammer, a forensic scientist with Hammer Forensics. All of them spent countless hours working on the case.
The experts described the lengthy process of piecing their case together, and while each of them was focused on one of the four men, they said they were all one big team, and the secret to success was sticking with the case and not giving up. They also talked about the enormous amount of public support the four got from their community every step of the way.
Oberly said it took a village, and hours of pro-bono work to bring them home.
“It was really not a straight road from September of 2013 to their release in December of 2015,” he explained. “I have to say, it was one of the most interesting and full cases I’ve ever been a part of. It was a challenge every day. It was interesting, maddening, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding.”
Allen said the Fairbanks Police Department spent all of two days investigating the initial murder, and that when the state later assigned two of their most experienced troopers to reinvestigate, the troopers came back and told them they thought the four were innocent. Allen said those troopers were then fired, and later were key witnesses for the defense.
Allen also said the state convinced the jurors that the Native community was conspiring together to keep guilty men out of prison. He said details of the case like this raise deeper concerns about the system.
“Something else that really must be said as we talk about this, that’s painful, as a kid from Fairbanks who loves that community, it was a really painful reality for me to come to understand, and that was the factor of racism in this case,” he said. “And it gets nasty, and it’s ugly, and it’s awful, but it’s real and we should talk about it.”
The event was called “The Fairbanks Four: Lessons learned from Alaska’s first exoneration,” but prosecutors said it’s important for the public to understand they were not exonerated. The state has not said they’re innocent or that they were wrongfully convicted, they’ve simply “vacated” their sentences.
Legally, that means they’re not exonerated, but they’ve been released and the charges and sentences have been removed from their criminal records.
Oberly said the four men will be in San Antonio, Texas next month for the annual Innocence Network Conference.
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