The Story of the Fairbanks Four Who Gained Justice on Thursday

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The Fairbanks Four are free men, as the result of a post-conviction relief process involving lawyers from the firm of Dorsey & Whitney, the Office of Public Advocacy, and the Alaska Innocence Project

Published December 19, 2015

FAIRBANKS — On Thursday, December 17, 2015, Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle signed an order vacating the judgments of conviction against George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, and Eugene Vent—the men now known as the Fairbanks Four—and ordered their immediate release.

After eighteen years of imprisonment for crimes they did not commit, the Four walked out of the Fairbanks Correctional Center, dressed in civilian clothes, as free men for the first time since their arrests on October 11 and 12, 1997.

The men’s release was the culmination of a case that began with the arrest of Eugene Vent on October 11, 1997, following the attacks on John Hartman and Franklin Dayton on the streets of Fairbanks early that same day. Hartman eventually died from his injuries. An intoxicated, seventeen year old Vent was contacted by the Fairbanks Police Department (FPD), and over the course of multiple interviews, he parroted back information provided to him by the investigators—in what would later be described as a confession—to the assaults on Dayton and Hartman. Based on information contained in those statements, and additional information added by the investigators, FPD contacted and eventually arrested George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts.

In what was described at the time by FPD as a fast moving investigation, the State of Alaska took the case to a grand jury on October 15, 1997, producing charges against the four men for the assault and murder of John Hartman. All four of the men declared their innocence immediately after their interviews with FPD, and have continued to maintain their innocence to the present day. They were convicted in three trials, and the convictions were upheld on appeal.

In May 2009, the Alaska Innocence Project (AKIP) entered into a representation agreement with Marvin Roberts and George Frese to undertake investigation and possible representation in a post-conviction relief (PCR) action. The AKIP investigation involved contacting dozens of witnesses, both in and out of Alaska, that eventually led to the identification of the individuals who were actually involved in the assault and murder of John Hartman. With the confession of William Holmes that he and four of his friends were the people who actually attacked Hartman, information that was not available to any of the three juries who heard the original cases, PCR actions claiming actual innocence were filed in 2013.

The State of Alaska fervently and continually contested the men’s claim of innocence. The State maintained this position even in the face of a finding by their own cold case investigators that the case against the four men was not supportable. The State’s opposition continued through more than a year of discovery, and through five weeks of an evidentiary hearing held in Fairbanks during October-November of this year.

The Petitioners—George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, and Eugene Vent—along with their attorneys, felt they had presented a very convincing case and more than met the burden of proving their innocence by clear and convincing evidence. The trial attorneys from Dorsey & Whitney—Bob Bundy, Jahna Lindemuth, Kate Demarest and Mike Grisham—who worked this case pro bono, did a magnificent job during the five week hearing. So did the attorneys from the Office of Public Advocacy—Whitney Glover and Rick Allen. However, at the end of the evidentiary hearing Judge Paul Lyle indicated he still had a significant amount of evidence to review, and a number of related legal rulings to make—a process he expected to last many months. Therefore, a negotiated resolution that provided for the immediate release of the three still incarcerated men (Roberts was released on parole in June of this year), and resulted in a complete vacation of all convictions, was seen by the Petitioners as a desirable result.

The four men known as the Fairbanks Four are now free, and stand innocent of all charges related to the 1997 death of John Hartman and assault on Franklin Dayton. They will be able to spend Christmas 2015 with their family and friends.

 

 

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