Life Outside Prison – The Fairbanks Four on Life After Exoneration, Interview Part III

*The third installment of a three part interview with the Fairbanks Four. A fund exists for the men and can be donated to HERE

 

The last chapter of the Fairbanks Four story has only just now begun. This is the beginning of ever after, where George, Eugene, Marvin, and Kevin have the freedom to chose what comes next. Life without bars is new to the men, who discuss both the joys and challenges of life in a whole new world.

“You are waiting so long for freedom you are ready for it every day,” Eugene says. “But, you’re really never ready. You can imagine it but there’s no way to know what to expect.”

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Newly licensed driver Kevin Pease

 

Kevin just got his driver’s license, and shows it to George as he speaks about some of the hardships of adjusting to life outside.

“One big thing, that’s  a hard thing, is the generation gap, ” Kevin says. “There is a whole new generation of people that have been born and grown up since we went away. Everyone I knew is older, they are the adults. I go to jail, and I was a teenager. It’s almost like arrested development. I used to think of aging as the passage of time, but it isn’t that. Aging is experiences. My peers have kids, families, jobs, car payments, relationships that happened and ended, careers, bills, life, and I feel like we weren’t allowed to have experiences. We didn’t learn from these experiences because we didn’t have them. So we are almost forty and part of me feels that and part of me is still nineteen years old. When I left we were the kids. Now we are the parents of the kids. We have moved up this like whole generation, and nothing prepared us for that.”

Marvin notices the adjustment most when interacting with people as well.

“The hardest part of freedom for me is interacting with people,” Marvin says, “I may make it look easy, I try to, but it’s really difficult. I have a lot of anxiety. I am so grateful for all people have done and for my path but there are times I wish I was just a regular person who this had not happened to.”

For Eugene, people have been a refuge. He has dedicated much of his time since release to babysitting, quiet visits, and time with his grandmother. It is the process of making daily decisions that overwhelms him,

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Eugene Vent reunited with his Grandmother Annie, who raised him

 

“Choices,” Eugene says. “The hardest has been making decisions about things I am not really, I feel like I am not prepared to make or qualified to make. And it is only day to day life. What to buy from the store, what do I want to do today, what kind of groceries, what kind of job would I want. These may seem small to most people but going to a restaurant and ordering food, just waking up in the morning and opening a door, right there it’s more decisions than I was able to make in all of these years. I didn’t have the liberty to make decisions when I was incarcerated, and there are so many now.”

“I was in the store last night,” Kevin adds, “And like stuck in this aisle for an hour. I was buying jelly, but there were dozens and dozens of choices, for just jelly. What kind of jelly should I get? What do I like? Careers, training, what to do with a day, it’s like constantly we have all these choices.”

George laughs, “Man, I was doing that too, but now I just look at the prices. Things got expensive!”

Kevin sees the myriad of sensory input and choices as a kind of speeding of time, and wishes that things would slow down.

“It goes too fast,” Kevin says, “One thing that is hard is how fast everything is moving. Everything is at a higher speed than I am used to. In prison things are slow. Every day the same thing happens, with a set number of people, the same people every day, wearing one color. Now it’s cars, sounds, every color out there, people behind you, in front of you, new faces all the time, endless possibilities. It’s the hardest thing to get used to and sometimes I just want everything to slow down so I can take it in.”

Eugene agrees. “Everything is such a rush, so fast. I wish I could slow it down too.”

“I love it,” George says of the frantic speed at which free life is moving.

“Sometimes I feel like I have too much time on my hands,” Kevin adds.

“Well I feel like I don’t have enough,” says George. “But i know what you mean, like there have been a few times I was alone for a minute and thinking you know, now what?”

Now what? That is the question that dominates the minds of the four and comes up most often from those who supported them. For now, adjusting to life outside is enough.

“It’s very hard to trust people,” Kevin says. “In prison it is unhealthy people employing unhealthy tactics. Criminal tendencies and ulterior motives are the norm.”

“That’s super rough,” George agrees. “Prison – I will put it this way – in there the average educational level is high school dropout, with the occasional A student gone corrupt. It is is not the easiest brightest group of people. In there you are usually not dealing with trustworthy or aware people. Everyone in prison refuses to be vulnerable. That is the primary motivation.”

“And now we are out here with people we love, and we have to relearn what that means in an everyday way. To have relationships built on trust with people you love,” Kevin says.

“Who can you trust?” Eugene agrees, “that is a real question. What a blessing to not know because the answer used to be ‘no one.”

George and his mom

George and his mother, Veronica

 

“Exactly,” says George, “that’s what I’m talking about, because now we are out here with people that we are supposed to love and care for and cherish. In there, it’s different. Inmates. Numbered people. To be out with people is good and overwhelming. I’m taking care of my mom, and we are both getting stronger.”

Kevin gazes out the third floor window that overlooks the neighborhood he grew up in. Between the trees he can just make out his childhood home. “I have these moments when I realize I am free. When it just hits me. You can’t absorb it all at once, it is just too much, so it comes in these little pieces. But it will hit you, like it’s hitting me now.”  He shakes his head in disbelief. “I am standing right here, looking out this window. I. Am. Free.”

George cannot get over how freedom announces itself in every moment of the day. “The sensation of freedom is constant,” he says. “Sitting in this chair right here right now, it’s so comfortable. Something as simple as that. Not sitting on steel. Freedom is everything.”

They reflect on all that has changed in their home town, and the people who live there. George sees the changes most in his daughter. She was three years old when he was arrested, and on his homecoming she is a twenty-one year old mother of two. George is matter of fact about how hard it was to lose those years, but seems genuine in expressing his peace with it.

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George holding his grandchildren on his birthday as his daughter Tiliisia looks on.

 

“I don’t think about what is lost through change or time I think about what is gained,” he says. “How I relate to that is I see the grandchildren as the second chance. The bright side is I left this little baby girl, but came home to two grandbabies. One for two – that is a prison term, – one for two.  In prison when someone wants say a candy bar the exchange is one for two. Commissary takes weeks, everything in prison is about waiting. So you give a guy one candy bar today, and in a few weeks, he repays you two. One for two. I feel like I gave one by losing those years with my daughter and came out to two grandchildren. I got two. God finds a way to set is straight. I  lost more than you ever thought I could bear, and then gained more than I could have ever imagined. And that is how I see the whole experience. One for two.”

In the end, the men agree that their story is a happy one, where love conquers.

Kevin has long found a particular quote from another wrongfully imprisoned man the best encapsulation of their experience. From prison he quoted Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, saying “hate put me in prison, but love is gonna bust me out.”

“Love,” Kevin says – his one-word answer to the question of what freed them.

Marvin agrees.

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Marvin embraces his mother Hazel moments after his exoneration. Newsminer photo.

 

“Love, first and foremost love. Love is always what motivates us to do something for someone else,” Marvin says. “I believe that the information, the story, of our case and how we came to be in prison interested people. Brian O’Donoghue wrote about it, Innocence Project took us on, and then this huge shift from the blog. Once they heard the story the truth became obvious, and people saw themselves I think in us. Their sons. I was not surprised that people were drawn to our story.  I was surprised at how fast everything transpired after the blog.”

Eugene believes it all comes down to love as well.

“People root for the underdog, for one,” Eugene adds. “But really, love. The movement to free us was based on love and truth simple as that, and the efforts to lock us up was hate and lies, and love and truth are stronger. Of course that won out, you know? It always does. Man, it’s awesome. And we are just, totally grateful.”

The issue of of gratitude looms large in the minds of all four men and in their thoughts of the future.  The only time in the interview that the men are overcome with emotion is when the topic of gratitude comes up. Marvin says he thinks of it often.

“I just, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I always feel that,” Marvin

“Something I do wonder,” George says, “is why us? For us to be deserving of this love we have received, it overwhelms me. I feel so obligated to everyone.”

George stops his sentence short as he is overcome, and Kevin is quick to offer some comfort.

Fairbanks Four attorneys

Marvin and Fairbanks Four Pro Bono Legal Team

“Well don’t feel obligated to everyone, George,” Kevin says, “that’s not possible, you will be raking leaves and babysitting and trying to do every little thing for thousands of people for the rest of your life. Feel that hardcore obligated to what all those people added up together are. And we need to put our lives there, just into the good. Being good people. So be obligated to yourself first and learn to be okay because that’s what people want from you anyways. They want a redemption story, they want a happy ending. They want you to be okay. They want someone to survive because it gives them hope. So that’s what I am doing, I am starting with taking care of myself so I can be okay, so I can just have the strength to be a person who can do more eventually.”

Eugene says he, too, is often overwhelmed when he thinks over what he considers an obligation to those who helped to free him.

“I think a lot about,” he says,  “how do we ever repay them? Every single person that did right by us, the attorneys, just regular people, they are all such a huge blessing. And it makes the people that did bad by us so small. Like nothing compared to the good. I don’t know how we will ever repay the kindness we were shown.”

George shakes his head at the magnitude. “Eighteen years,” he says, “it’s almost incomprehensible. People, most of them strangers, who fought eighteen long years for us. It’s amazing.”

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Hazel Roberts at 2007 protest. She actively protested her son’s imprisonment for 18 consecutive years.

 

The sheer amount of time that elapsed while the men waited behind bars for justice is hard for them and their friends and families to grasp. Marvin says that simply wrapping his mind around eighteen years remains an elusive task.

“Time is a hard one,” he says, “because yes sometimes it feels like more than eighteen years, and sometimes just yesterday.”

“No,” George interjects, “it feels like exactly eighteen years. Because that’s how long it was, and this is what that feels like.”

Kevin says that there are times that he feels the weight of lost time.

“Seeing people that I used to know, looking at the life that has happened. That’s when you realize how much time has gone by,” he says, “when you see how it changed people. And when you actually have to face, man, I was in prison for something I didn’t do long enough to age people this way, change things, when you really wrap your head around eighteen years, it’s rough.”

George agrees. “It’s crazy when the moments hit and you can absorb how much time was lost, he says. “Looking at your family. Nieces and nephews, I have so many, and I didn’t even know them. How people have aged. Yes. it’s the people. When you think about what you lost, it’s people. What does time mean? Relationships. ”

“Time,” Marvin adds, “just time. It’s simple in one way, and complicated in another, because time is everything. People, experiences, relationships. Time. And it’s the only thing you can’t get back. I know what we lost.”

George believes it is as impossible to number their losses as it would be to enumerate their possibilities. He speaks with an unchained excitement about the future.

“I want to experience everything I can,” George says. “Business. Travel. Everything. Just talking, reaching out to the next generation of kids, that is how I think we all see ourselves paying this forward. Teaching them the power of their words, the power of their own creativity, advocating for basic education and life skills, a higher self-worth. It’s very important. It’s everything.  When I was growing up there was a strong sense of community, the it takes a village, and I felt like that. How can we get kids to maintain that into adolescence, into adulthood, to develop a sense of self worth despite the obstacles and take it into a healthy lifestyle?”

The conversation returns often to what the men describe as a mind-boggling number of choices available to them on all levels – from groceries to life dreams. Their personality differences shine through sincerely on the topic of choices. George is ready to choose everything, all at once, regardless of practicality. Marvin is diligently pursuing the choices he has made. Kevin and Eugene are cautiously evaluating the seemingly endless possibilities.

“For now,” Kevin says of the future, “I am busy just realizing I am here, looking out the window. Waking up to an unlocked door. Adjusting to freedom.  We haven’t even been out a month yet, so the reality is I don’t know yet what the future holds. But I know I will know eventually, and I am so happy to be free and get to decide.”

Eugene is taking his new found freedom as well. “I don’t know what we will do yet,” Eugene says, smiling, “But I am so grateful that I can be here, free, to experience whatever comes next.”

Marvin, ever the engineer, has a future more carefully mapped out. But in general, he says, he wants to “make a career, have a family, just do what I can to rebuild. To build. Have a happy life.”

George continues with enthusiasm, “People, all kinds of people, are stuck in cycles of hopelessness, focused on bleak outlooks, totally unaware of the prospects out there. We have been there to the places of hopelessness. I have. And now we are just blown away by the opportunities within reach. If we can come back and even a small amount show this next generation that this world is not bleak, it is full of hope and opportunity, then this whole experience made sense. I have been living a fantasy for 18 years. For me this world is the dream. What I learned and what I want to share, is this simple life we all have – it’s everything. This is the dream.”

For the time being, Eugene is content to simply enjoy the freedom he dreamed of for eighteen years.

“I wake up happy that I am free,” he says, “That’s what I do.”

 

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Life Behind Bars – Interview with the Fairbanks Four Part II

* In part two of a three part interview Kevin Pease, George Frese, Eugene Vent, and Marvin Roberts discuss life before their recent release, and what it was like to spend 18 years in prison as innocent men. Donations to support the men as they reintegrate can be made HERE.

prison razor wire.jpgPrison is just a few short weeks in the past for the four men who served eighteen years for a crime they did not forget. With freedom has come the opportunity to begin what will surely be a lifelong task of reflecting on their experience. They like to focus on the victory and its blessings more than the difficulty of enduring eighteen long years of incarceration. But today, the men discuss what it felt like to be locked up.

“Freedom was surreal,” Eugene says,  “but nothing like getting locked up for something we didn’t do.”

Marvin agrees. “That was way more unbelievable. It was unreal. We just could not believe that it was happening. Being freed made sense, it was crazy, but it made sense because we are innocent. Being locked up? That was just unbelievable,” Marvin adds.

George, who says he passed time and coped with imprisonment largely by reading history, business, and psychology texts, adds a more academic answer.”You do get used to it. That is the human mind, you can adjust to almost anything. From a psychological perspective, they say human brains can adjust to almost any conditions in two weeks.”

The others look skeptical.

Fairbanks four“Yeah,” Kevin interjects, “But it didn’t take no two weeks. It took years and we had to force ourselves to get used to it. So we wouldn’t go crazy. When you’re in there innocent it’s all unreal.”

For the most part, the men say, they avoided discussing the hardship of their time in prison because they did not want to worry their families and friends. But with prison behind them and freedom ahead, they are more willing to discuss the suffering contained in the eighteen years of incarceration.

George says that 2008 marked the most difficult year of incarceration for him.

“It was a bleak time, ” he recalls. “I had 97 years, earliest possible release date of 2050, I had just lost the last of my appeals and was told basically that I had to start the entire process over. That was the point for me that I wanted to check out. Kill myself. And that lasted a few years. I wasn’t talking to anyone on the outside. Everyone was worn out, you know, it had been long for them too. I couldn’t talk to my daughter, I would dial the number and call and call but the phone was always off. I felt totally alone.” George pauses to gather his thoughts, the weight of recalling such a dark time evident on his face.

george in yellow“And then to think, ” George continues, “I had to face another eleven years, or more, it almost did me in. The attorneys meant well but once they lose they are gone too, during the appeal process they were people I spoke with, they provided hope and I relied on this hope, and it fell through, and they disappear. Just extreme isolation. The hopelessness. But I know why I pulled through – easy. My daughter. I didn’t want to hurt her, and that was my only reason. It was enough for me at that time I was willing to keep going, even if all that was ahead was suffering, if it spared her. I read about suicide, and it discussed the impact suicide has on other people and the psychology that fuels you. It underscored that my actions could affect her. So I stayed. I survived.”

For Kevin, one of the biggest blows came in 2006 when his mother died suddenly in a home accident.

“The hardest time for me is when I lost my mom,” Kevin says. “She was all I felt I had at the time. We had developed a different relationship with me being in. I had grown up some, a lot, and we were close. She was all I had. And when she passed away it was sudden, and very unexpected. I spoke with her before she died every other day, damn near. She was out there fighting for me, believing in me, and she was my only link to the outside world. When she died it just felt like I lost the entire world, and I lost all hope.”

“You will never feel more alone in your life than in a prison,” Kevin continues. “You fight thinking about it, but hell yeah you think about your situation. Distraction is one thing during the day, but night comes. Or you get thrown in solitary in a tiny cell with nothing but the walls and your thoughts. How did I get here? When will this end? One minute can be an eternity in there.  In some ways the hardest, longest part of the experience was those dark minutes. So you keep the faith, but it is a struggle.”

It isn’t easy for the men to watch each other recall the darkest hours of their experience as innocent men in prison. They look at the ground as each in turn recalls the specifics of their individual hardships. For Marvin, it was those first days, months, and years.

“The hardest point of my prison sentence was the first five years while I was adjusting to prison and trying to accept that it could be years before I saw freedom,” Marvin says. “It’s a miracle, it really is, that we survived. Because you can’t even describe it. No one will ever really know who hasn’t been there. No words, no movie, no book, no interview, could describe the suffering.”

Eugene

Eugene Vent, a short time before he was wrongfully convicted of murder.

Eugene watches Marvin intently as he speaks and after some says, “Me, too. The beginning. The hardest part for me was from like the time I was arrested to our conviction. I was the youngest when we went in, and I was just this little kid taking big hits. Arrested for something I didn’t do. Indicted. Tried. Convicted. And then in the midst of that I lost my brother, my cousin Corwin, but we were raised together. And everything I ever knew or counted on in the world was crumbling apart. You know after that I just became used to the environment, but it’s not like that was better because now I was in prison. I was innocent, but I had this void from not knowing my father. I was vulnerable. I grew up in there, made decisions an adolescent would make”

“But it has all been a blessing,” Eugene adds after a moment of reflection.”We all  know we are blessed, like we don’t want to complain.”

The men agree unilaterally that beyond all hardship, they feel blessed. Each insist that they had absolute faith they would see freedom someday.

George laughs at what he sees as the good fortune inside their worst nightmare. “What’s clowning is that we hardly knew each other when we went in. But we were perfect people for this, for each other, there was no better combination,” he says. “And even in the beginning I would thank God, for real, because he chose us so perfectly for each other. The anguish we faced, and yet he let us face it with three people we each needed. Perfectly formed. I always knew God had his hand on us, was guiding our path.”

The other men shake their heads in agreement.

“I kept faith, always,” Marvin says. “They couldn’t take that away.”

Eugene agrees. “I always believed, even during the worst times, I knew someday we would be free.”

“I never lost faith we would get out,” Kevin agrees, “When? How? I didn’t know that. But I always knew we would get out.”

George echoes the others. “I never lost faith,” he says. “I mean, there is a voice of doubt that tries to say ‘never,’ but I kept faith. I knew we were innocent, the case was a bad case, no DNA, alibis, all of that. I knew that Brian (O’Donoghue) was writing about the case, I knew you (April Monroe) were, and I knew people were reading. I knew someday, someone would do the right thing, that someday, something would happen. And that’s faith right there, because even after watching people do the wrong thing over and over, I knew that God is good, his children are good. I knew someday we would be free.”

The men are ecstatic to be out. This is, they say, a dream come true. Gratitude and excitement dominate all conversation about freedom or the future. But they acknowledge that there is a lot of adjustment after eighteen years of incarceration, and that nothing could have fully prepared them for the transition.

First Moments of Freedom – Interview With the Fairbanks Four Part I

In the first of a three-part interview series with Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, and George Frese, the men reflect on the first moments of freedom. 

 

Fairbanks fourFor over eighteen years George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, and Eugene Vent languished in prisons cells, locked away for a crime they did not commit.

How many days does that add up to, one of the men wonders? This is the smart phone era, and with just three weeks of freedom behind them the four men have already learned that the internet can quantify almost anything. Seven thousand and nine days –  ten million, ninety-two thousand, six hundred minutes.

“And believe me,” Marvin says, “we felt every single one.”

fairbanksfourfreeThe four men, who were freed through a settlement agreement with the state of Alaska on the heels of a five week post-conviction relief hearing, sat down together for the first time to speak out about their experience and update supporters on their progress, answer reader and supporter questions, and discuss their lives since their recent release.

Eugene says it is important for the four to assure those who supported them they are doing well. “When we were there trapped in these cells hoping and praying, there were all these people right there with us in a sense. We felt that and I still feel that. They are such a blessing. An incredible blessing and I want them to know we are doing alright.”

Freedom, the four men agree, was on their minds constantly during their time as wards of the State of Alaska. “It was the thought that never went away,” George says. “It was the dream inside the nightmare. We kept faith and we knew someday we would be free, we just didn’t know when, or how. And the worst times, whether or not we could endure the journey there. But we knew it ended in freedom. But how? When? That was the thought that was always there sometimes in desperation and sometimes in anticipation. When?”

That question was finally answered on December 17, 2015, when a judge signed the settlement agreement from the State of Alaska that ended eighteen years of wrongful incarceration for the men. Freedom came like a flood, suddenly, and changed every aspect of the landscape of their existence. And just as their lives had been altered without warning all years ago, the doors to the Fairbanks Correctional Center opened in the other direction and the men walked free.

George describes the first moments of freedom in one word – “Surreal,” he says.

Kevin agrees. “You’re almost not even in the moment,” he says, “ it was like an out of body experience it was so surreal.”

Eugene contrasts the first moments of freedom to years of imagining the moment. “When I used to imagine our release it was always like more scripted,” Eugene says, “like a gavel comes down and we the judge ordered us unlocked, that’s how it was in my daydreams. But the actual moment was perfect. It felt so special, so comforting, just as it was meant to be. ”

Marvin had his custody altered to parole and had been out of prison half a year on the day of exoneration. He picked up his co-defendants in his recently purchased truck and they spent the first hour of freedom together.

Marvin considers the moment they left the jail together the moment of exoneration. “They unlocked the doors, unshackled them, simple as that. They let us all walk out the front doors and for the first time in eighteen years it was like things were as they should be,” he recalls. “Even though I had been out on parole, I was not a free man until that moment, until my brothers were free and we were exonerated. And I felt free, I felt light. Like a weight coming off my shoulders. The weight of being innocent men convicted, the weight of being out here waiting for them. It just felt okay for the first time in a very long time.”

After the men walked out the front door together, Kevin says they “drove around. We just cruised around. It was the first time we had been together in a car.”

Kevin shakes his heads at the irony.

“Isn’t it crazy?” he says, and laughs.  “Eighteen years’ worth of people talking about us riding around together, and here the first time we are in a car together it’s the day we are released after all that time as innocent men in jail. That was surreal too.”

After spending their first hour of freedom together the men went to the David Salmon Tribal Hall, a traditional Native community hall where supporters and community members had spontaneously gathered upon news of the men’s release. The hall was filled to capacity. Supporters of the men prepared a meal to feed hundreds within an hour of their release and were gathered to welcome them home.

George recalls entering together through a side door. “It was crazy walking in and you just see it totally packed.”, he says.  “There was just enough room to walk in with people all around. And I felt like right then at that moment we had come home. We were there two hours. So release, the hall, all of that was three hours total and it felt like one moment. I went from a cage, home. I can’t even describe it.”

Kevin takes an elongated pause before describing the welcoming at the tribal hall. “The sound,” he says, “I will always remember the sound. After eighteen years incarcerated and this limited number of sounds, it was like there was every sound in the world at once – voices, clapping, drums. Standing on that stage and looking at the smiles and tears, and listening to everyone applaud. And then maybe more than the noise was the silence. When we stood up to talk the noise was gone and the whole room was taken with this deafening silence. Looking out there on the silent crowd, just seeing our attorneys who fought for us, faces I ain’t seen in years. Seeing people smile, people with tears running down their face, knowing these people fought for us and brought us home, and we were home. That silence was powerful. Most powerful thing I ever heard.”

 

Donations are being accepted HERE to assist the Fairbanks Four in reintegrating. Their release conditions stipulated that they may not seek compensation for the 18 years of wrongful imprisonment.

 

 

 

Fairbanks Police Chief’s Shocking Remarks on Fairbanks Four Exoneration

Police chief Randall Aragon, who heads the Fairbanks Police Department that has long been accused of racial bias and misconduct in the Fairbanks Four case and others, made a series of shocking remarks following the release of the wrongfully convicted men known as the Fairbanks Four. The comments made in two separate interviews to Alaska media outlets KTVA and the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer marked a sharp departure from the chief’s pervious position and left supporters of the innocence movement wonder who directed his new position.

fairbanksfourfreeThe four men at the heart of the case- Eugene Vent, George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts – maintained their innocence for the entire eighteen years of their imprisonment, and refused to sign any terms of release that would not allow them to continue professing their innocence. After a five week evidentiary hearing on the case in which newly unearthed evidence that exposed incredible police and prosecutorial misconduct in the original case, undermined the credibility of the information prosecutors and police used to convict them, and revealed not one but two confessions from the alternate suspects known to the police for many years, the State of Alaska released the men in exchange for a promise from them not to sue the State, city, or individual police officers and prosecutors responsible for wrongfully convicting the men.

Although the State of Alaska, Fairbanks Police, and City of Fairbanks have reached excruciating levels of ridiculousness in their efforts to deny having made any mistakes in the case, and with eighteen years of absurd commentary from officials, the police chief’s remarks following the release of the men still managed to be uniquely offensive to the very concept of justice and every advocate who demanded it.

We will break this down real easy and respond to each of his comments individually.

“It’s like a person gets deferred adjudication for a traffic ticket, you know? You do well and [if] after a year you haven’t got any more tickets, the conviction disappears.”

No, actually, it turns out that being an innocent person convicted of a brutal murder and released after 18 years of fighting back against a deeply troubled system is a little different than a parking ticket disappearing on its own. Like, in every possible way. First there is the difference between committing a traffic infraction – as minor as it may be – and NOT committing a murder. Not only are these two different they are actually opposites. Guilt and Innocence are not the same. Should we all be worried we have a police chief who does not know that? (YES. The answer is YES, that should freak you all out – that is kinda how we got here). Then there is of course the difference between a traffic infraction like, say, running a yellow light, and the brutal kicking murder of an innocent child. They are both illegal, yet, it feels like maybe not comparable? Yes. Totally not comparable. And last but not least there is the glaring difference between a conviction “disappearing” after one year and eighteen years of wrongful imprisonment, day after day after day locked behind bars and chains, the violence, blood, lack of health care, psychological torture, missed moments, utter torment, and the unrelenting fight of a lifetime by yourself, your loved ones, thousands upon thousands of civil rights activists, hundreds of tribes, dozens of attorneys, the Innocence Project, political resolutions, politicians, all culminating in a evidentiary hearing that reveals precisely how you were wronged and who was actually responsible for the brutal murder, and the full dismissal of charges and release by your captors. Those things are pretty different.

Aragon said the settlement “vindicates the police department and prosecutors, and the state released the four not because they believe they’re innocent, but because of political pressure.”

Hahahahaha. What a hilarious, if tasteless joke. Because it is a joke, right?  I mean, there is no way that an agent of the law believes they were granted some kind of immunity against responsibility for the violation of civil and constitutional rights through extortion of unlawfully imprisoned citizens, right? And no one in their right mind could have seen the contents of the five week trial where the officers and prosecutor responsible here stammered and lied on the stand and then the state released the wrongfully convicted men before they could be freed by a court and sue, “vindication,” so this is definitely a joke. Well played, chief, for a second we thought you were serious. But be sure to tell that one to the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation, they will LOVE it.

Aragon went on to explain that the FPD would NOT be investigating John Hartman’s murder because it is closed (ie they still consider the Fairbanks Four guilty) and they have “no viable leads.”

“If anything ever pops up, any viable leads that would be workable that would lead us to believe someone else was involved, we would begin further investigation,” Aragon said. “At this point, we don’t have anybody else to look at as far as further investigation.”

“Whatever happened on that case, they’re no longer incarcerated. They’re turned loose,” Aragon said.

OHHHHHH MYYYYYY GOOOOOODDDDD How is this even real?

The Fairbanks Four were freed because they are innocent. The State of Alaska does not arbitrarily free killers. They did not kill John Hartman and any comment which insinuates that for the purpose of preventing liability or pleasing a higher up is a morally repugnant thing for any human, let alone one purporting to be an agent of justice, to say.

A fight for justice is a fight for JUSTICE. John Hartman was beaten to death for no reason, in a hate crime, as a little kid. He deserves justice. Bringing his killers to the court should trump any pursuit of ego, money or reputation. The FPD should investigate ALL leads. Investigate the Fairbanks four and the rest of the innocent all you like. But by all means, if you have not been able to find a viable lead, we can help there.

Jason Wallace, Shelmar Johnson, Marquez Pennington, and William Holmes killed John Hartman. There’s a lead that just “popped” up. We know that because TWO OF THEM CONFESSED. Their SWORN testimony is part of the public record and the chief himself sat and listened to it. William Holmes passed a lie detector to prove his confession was true, and even wrote it down and sent it directly to FPD who “basically, uh, didn’t do anything with it,” according to the officer who received it.

Perhaps not so into the reading? The mountain of evidence against the people who actually confessed to the crime was lost on you in person? Here is Holmes ON VIDEO if that helps.

If this murder cannot be solved we are all in serious danger, because this is as easy as an investigation gets. When the original officers failed to do it properly, the Alaska Innocence Project and the Alaska State Troopers came along and did it for them, then handed them the answer. If they can’t figure this one out then we have more problems within our justice system than even we knew about, and we are jaded over here.

We questioned it, too. We aligned with the prosecution, me and my investigators,” Aragon said. “There were doubts that was credible. My staff has never felt, at any point, that they were traveling in the wrong direction.”

Okay, well then you are going to want to fire those people that never felt they were maybe headed in the wrong direction. For incompetence. It is very important to question ones direction when all empirical evidence indicates the direction is dead wrong, especially when lives are at stake. They should be fired for some seriously disturbing confirmation bias driven incompetence.

“There’s got to be a calm. A cloud has been hanging over our great city. It’s kind of going away,” Aragon said.

We really want it to go away too, but somehow reading your comments served as the huge reminder that there is no end in sight. For real, please, knock it off. Actions and words against justice by agents of justice hang over this golden heart city like an unlifting fog, and we would super appreciate it if you guys would just stop.

At this point in the interview the chief shows off a photo of himself with a Native leader and a necklace, and basically insinuates that he and the Native community are all cool, and that indeed perhaps agree with him, saying, Natives “Wanna build a bridge and walk across it all together. And that’s what I’m looking forward to.” Because, you know, a comment made to him by one man in a completely different context on a totally different topic means every indigenous person in town agrees with him forever now.

Oh, dear. We think maybe you mistook BURNING bridges for building them.

Another roadblock for the FPD in investigating the alternate suspects? They claim they do not know where they are. We can help there, too.

Rashan Brown was arrested on August 5, 2004 in Umat County, Oregon. Brown was charged on 10 total counts, including "MURDER AGGRAVATED", "", "MURDER AGGRAVATED", "", "MURDER AGGRAVATED", "", "MURDER AGGRAVATED", "", and ""

Rashan Brown is in prison, in Oregon State penitentiary, because after you failed to arrest him for killing John Hartman he killed a pregnant woman and a young man. That’s one of the reasons we need to arrest killers – they kill people.

 

 

shelmar1Shelmar Johnson, longtime drug dealer, burglar, who supplied weapons for at least one murder, is currently in Orlando, Florida.

 

 

Marquez2Marquez Penninton, longtime drug dealer and woman beater, is here in the greater Fairbanks area, sharing streets with our children, exactly where the entire community was terrified the killers of John Hartman would end up back in 1997.

 

William Holmes TestimonyWilliam Holmes is in prison in California, because after you failed to arrest him for killing John Hartman, he killed two young men execution style an dumped them on the highway before heading off to execute his plan to kill an entire family including a little girl. Again, it’s important to arrest killers. They kill people. Like human people. Kind of a huge deal.

Wallace, JasonJason Wallace is in prison in Seward, which the FPD and state know, because they’re in pretty tight with him. And he is there because after they failed to arrest him for killing John Hartman he….yes, he killed more people. Again, we need to arrest killers because of the killing. But Wallace is in a category all his own. Last time he was in a squad car it was for killing an unarmed woman with a hammer, after which an officer took him to McDonalds because he felt bad Wallace would not be eating a burger for a long time. Unfortunately, he cannot be prosecuted for killing John Hartman because the State gave him immunity in the obscene effort to keep innocent men in prison. He CAN however be prosecuted for the perjury for lying on the stand. Oh, and it’s pretty obvious that he killed Mahogany Davis, three weeks after she had a baby and in front of her kids. And in general he seems to be super dangerous sociopath. So maybe look into that.

If all else fails and you cannot find Marquez Pennington and Shelmar Johnson with outside records, check your own. We are pretty sure they should be easy to find on your own informant list.

When reporters informed Bill Oberly of the Alaska Innocence project that the FPD Chief Aragon claimed to have no viable leads to investigate he said, “That’s ridiculous. We know who did it, a guy got up on the stand and confessed to it, and another guy told four other people he did it. And that’s not viable?”

We could summarize what Police Chief Aragon said that way and save you time – it’s ridiculous.

So now, Aragon and other agents of justice, we imagine you are off to celebrate the birth of the most famous man in the world. A wrongfully convicted man. You may want to read up on that.

Readers, we are so sorry that this isn’t over, but we know you already knew that.

The story of the Fairbanks Four is much older and much bigger than four young men. It is our story, the story of this place, this people, this country. And you have to keep fighting, because we have to be the ones to write the ending.

 

 

 

 

 

The Fairbanks Four Have Been Released

fairbanksfoudoorHundreds or people filled the hallway of the fifth floor of the Fairbanks Superior courthouse yesterday, gathered around two closed doors bearing the words “Confidential Hearing Do Not Enter.” They came one by one, trickling in to wait together, again, for justice. Grandmothers with their scarves and crochet needles, babies hanging from their mother’s hips, teenagers playing on their phones, nurses on lunch break, a relocated e-board meeting, beggars, CEO’s, activists, priests, people – they all came, and they waited.

For the last eighteen years people have stood diligently in the halls – pilgrims at the doorstep of a justice system that will not let them all the way in. And they have waited. They have raised money one dollar at a time, cake walks and spaghetti feeds, auctioned diamond willow walking sticks, and paintings, and hundreds of thousands of glass beads sewn to moose hide, and they have never given up.

fairbanksfourcourthouseBecause eighteen years ago men in power took away four boys for a crime they did not commit on a whim and a terrible miscalculation. Four boys. Children. They did not care whether or not they were guilty, just believed they were disposable. That they would be forsaken and forgotten because they could not see them as human beings with value equal to their own children, because that is the dehumanizing reality of racism and bias. They were so, so wrong. It’s beautiful, really, how wrong they were.

“I go cover to cover on the case, and I just don’t see anything that would account for its staying power, its longevity, its life,” a former police chief said in reference to the case in 2012.

They forgot to account for the staying power of the truth and the longevity of love. For eighteen years no one who loved those boys, or loved people who loved those boys, or loved someone they could see in those boys forgot. Their persistence grew. The truth spread. Years of hard work led back to the courtroom where the case began, barred from entry to the room where fates would be decided, back to the hallway to wait.

After more than seven hours of waiting, the doors opened. The judge allowed the courtroom to fill to capacity, and warned the spectators that the court was a solemn institution of justice, and that he would not tolerate outbursts or demonstrations. The court was silent as the judge outlined the terms on which the four would be exonerated.

The State of Alaska agreed to release the men by dismissing the original charges, which from a legal perspective makes it almost as if the case simply never happened. As if they were never arrested or charged at all. As if the entire thing was, after all, only a nightmare.

The State further required that the four men agree to not sue the state for their wrongful imprisonment or the police and prosecutorial misconduct that led to it.

What are eighteen years of life worth?

There are some that believe the four should have waited in prison until they were offered monetary compensation. And certainly are owed better from the very system predicated on the notion that accountability should be calculated and exacted through the court of law. But money is only money. (You CAN donate money to them HERE).

No one lays awake at night an innocent man in a prison cell and has their heart break a thousand times because they miss money. People miss their mom, their brother, their best friend, their dad, their child, their lover, their sister. They miss Christmas and pancakes and birthday candles and coffee and giggles. They miss time. They miss love.

No one thought about money when the judge announced the immediate release of Eugene Vent, George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts. They erupted into cheers. They cried. And they sang and danced a powerful song and a strong dance.

All of those people went home, cooked, and met at the tribal hall an hour later and put on one of the largest potlatches Interior Alaska has ever seen. With nearly no notice they prepared a feast, gathered, and waited one last time to welcome home the men who were taken so long ago, back when they were still just boys.

The four men came home. They walked into the tribal hall where for many years chairs have waited empty for them. And the people danced again.

Nuchalawoyya was the song. Literally translated from Koyukon Athabascan it means “where two rivers meet.” Much of meaning, in many things, is lost in translation. It also means a confluence – a place where people meet, where two things become one thing. The meeting of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers is called by the same name. It was a traditional meeting place for chiefs for more time than history can record, and it was  place that saw gatherings in celebration and despair alike. It was the place that the Tanana Chiefs conferred so long ago to negotiate collectively for their people. The place is very near the modern day village of Tanana, a place where two worlds collided long ago. After the first settlers came they divided the place along an invisible barrier called the “mission line.” On one side, the church, the school, the clinic. On the other, the houses and forest. No Natives were allowed to cross the mission line after 5pm. The world is cut up with invisible lines. A mission line runs right across the courthouse steps. Nuchalawoyya is that place, and it is a song that remembers all of that and more.

It is a song that has been sung at many fundraisers and protests and times where these men were mourned or rooted for or lifted up. It has long been a cry for justice and last night the men for whom the song was sung so many times came home and walked right into that circle and sang that song, too.

The Fairbanks Four were exonerated and released because of the hard work and faith of people like you. To all of you who have read this blog, heard this story, donated, baked, dance, sewed, sang, hoped, listened – thank you.

fairbanksfourgeorgetiliisia

George sees his daughter

George’s daughter was three when he was taken away. She is twenty-one now. The sound of her yelling “Dad!” across a room and run to hug her father – thank you for that.

 

 

 

 

 

eugeneandmom

Eugene sees his mother

Eugene’s mom holding onto him – this small woman whose son grew to a big tall man away where she could not reach him – touching his face and saying, “Is it really real?” – thank you for that.

 

 

 

 

fairbanksfourkevinandaunts

Kevin and Aunts

Kevin flanked by his aunts, the sisters of the beloved mother he lost while in prison, shaking the hand of a little boy who wanted to meet him, who came and said “I did a current events report on you for school and got a hundred percent and that’s how come I knew you were innocent and am happy you are home.” Thank you.

fairbanksfourmarvinhazel

Marvin with his mother after court ruling

Marvin’s mother peering through a locked door for the last time, tears finally of happiness on her face when he stood a free man for the first time in eighteen years – thank you for that.

And none of that could ever be purchased. The Fairbanks Four deserve better than what they got, but what they got is better than what those who did them wrong will ever see or feel or understand in a lifetime. They won.

The fight for justice is not over. It will not end in this lifetime or the next. But it is a privilege and a blessing to fight.

To Eugene, Kevin, George, and Marvin – welcome home.

fairbanksfourtribalhall

Supporters Gathered At Tribal Hall

 

 

 

Civil Rights Activists Under Attack in Fairbanks Four Case

The State of Alaska’s position of record is that has never been and will never be any wrongful conviction in their justice system. The notion that the government institution operated by human beings is free from all human error is bizarre but not unusual as many leaders and governments have attempted to avoid scrutiny through claims of divinity or innate perfection. This is a view notably shared by such leaders as David Koresh, Charles Manson, Stalin, Kim Jong-il, and a host of other nuts. And, just as in other situations of bureaucratic corruption, those who have spoken out against their absurdity have become the targets of inappropriate and vulgar displays of power.

 

bigbrotherThe average citizen of the free world tends to understand and accept that attacks on freedom of speech happened unabated through history, yet still believe that such attacks are part of the past. That is because the average citizen goes to work, comes home to catch some prime time television, throws the occasional political meme up on their Facebook wall, and expresses their more radical beliefs at their own tables. In short, the average citizen does not live in a state of oppression, and does not speak out in high visibility situations about the oppression or unjust actions taken by the government that they observe. And thus, tales of attacks on civil rights leaders, corruption, abuses of power, are relegated to the history channel documentaries on the 60’s or Richard Nixon and the like.

 

This still happens today. Those who speak out publicly and effectively against the government, their agents, institutions, and policies still come under attack. Here. In our town, in your town, in any town. And it is critically important that you pay attention when it happens under your nose, because our progress as the human race depends upon ordinary people with perfectly average and kind sensibilities making sure that the founding principles of their nations are upheld.

 

It is inside the context of sharing a larger lesson about the importance of speaking out that we have chosen to share precisely how this blog and the leaders of the innocence movement in Alaska came under attack by the State of Alaska.

 

If you call up the leaders of this great state they will absolutely assure you that no one was attacked, that they support freedom of speech, and that all contact, subpoenas, recordings, etc. of those affiliated with the Fairbanks Four movement were done appropriately, for the right reasons, and inside the confines of the law. And they would be lying.

 

subpoeanaIn July of 2015 the State of Alaska served a “subpoena duces tecem” on this blogger for testimony and collection of my personal AND work emails, letters, communications of all kind, writings, and more.  The full scope of the subpoena is pictured here. A subpoena duces tecem is used to take property and information into the custody. It is a Latin phrase which translates as “you will bring with you under penalty of punishment.”

So, I produced years of letters, messages, emails, blog writings, and more. Under threat of arrest, and in a sincere effort to allow transparency. I also attended the demanded interview for taking of my deposition.

Depositions are a virtual legal free-for-all. An attorney, in this case Adrienne Bachman for the State of Alaska, can conduct a deposition on virtually anyone based on their own opinion that the interview MAY lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. It is such a vague standard that it is a loophole easily exploited for the purpose of harassing or spying on activists.

At the deposition interview, here are some things the State asked me:

 

1.) Fully described directions by landmark to a particular elder’s house (weird and actually the scariest question because I could not imagine what they would do once they got there, like was Adrienne Bachman going to be standing over her bed at the witching hour?).

 

2.) People who I had sexual relationships (easy – the people I decided have sexual relationships with #noregrets).

 

3.) The details surrounding a specific arrest for minor consuming alcohol at the age of 17 (I don’t remember really, I was drunk and seventeen).

 

4.) What drugs she had done as a teenager or seen other people do (as many as I could get my hands on with whoever was available).

 

5.) Why I had custody of previous foster care children (Sincerely inappropriate question under any circumstance).

 

6.) Whether I had ever used the term “sugar mama” (I really can’t remember but that sure sounds like something I would say), and then, why I was laughing at the use of the term “sugar mama” (well…because it’s funny, especially in context).

 

7.) HOW I drank as a teenager (to excess, and unfortunately I don’t have a lot of details beyond that, because I was pretty much drunk for the entire mid to late 90’s).

And so on…

The beauty here for me is that I am perhaps less uncomfortable with my past than the average person, and although I found the process truly invasive and uncomfortable, I did not find it debilitating. I am a nonfiction writer. I have invaded my own privacy in the name of telling a story for my entire life, and to me the value in sharing the brutal truth greatly overrides the embarrassment of it being public. We are all human.  But that is not necessarily typical, and the reality is this experience could be terrible for many people.

salem-witch-memorialIt is worth noting that the questions were not relevant to the Fairbanks Four case, and were stereotypical attacks of a power figure against a woman. Revelation of deviant past behavior, attacks on maternal identity, and sexual relationships or sexual history, though certainly not relevant to the case, are a classic targets when attempting to discredit any woman. And we should all be concerned at the idea of the government slut-shaming outspoken women. That said, look backward, and look forward. There has always been an organized overkill response to women who are too outspoken or who possess political power that makes the powers that be uncomfortable. The Salem Witch trials come to mind. Scarlet letters. Stolen children. The many thousands of land owning widows who faced execution, wrongful conviction, displacement. The woman, who, right now as you read this, is being hung or stoned to death or beheaded or otherwise silenced by death for failing to accept the terms of her specific oppression,. Beheaded and deposed is a far cry from one another. Yet, we cannot regard any action on the spectrum as acceptable without condoning the ideology that fuels attacks on the outspoken.  And my specific experience is worth talking about only because it is universal, and because I am so ordinary. If the government can go through all of my stuff and ask me those questions, they could do that to anyone. And I was far from the only person under scrutiny in this case.

By the time that the Fairbanks Four proceedings were nearing completion and the state had failed to present a case that supported the guilt of the wrongfully convicted men, they presented an unsubstantiated theory that the “Fairbanks Four” activists, specifically myself, business owner Ricko DeWilde, and pastor Shirley Lee had conspired with a prison gang to have Arlo Olson intimidated.

notagangsta

April and her gang

Let me take a quick break to say, as absurd as I feel writing this sentence, I am not in a prison gang. I frankly have my doubts as to whether or not I would qualify for admission into an all-male prison gang even if it was my aspiration. I do not know or care whether or not any of the Fairbanks Four have affiliated with prison gang members in the last eighteen years of living in prison.  I am certain that Pastor Lee and Mr. DeWilde are not in a prison gang. We have not, would not, and did not conspire to intimidate or harass anyone, and haven’t even conspired to hurt their feelings. We have, openly and publicly, encouraged people with information to come forward in this case and vowed to stand by them if they are attacked for doing the right thing. Because their own government WILL attack them for doing the right thing, and has (see Scott Davison or Arlo Olson). We have bribed no one, paid no one, threatened no one, hurt no one. Still, the State of Alaska presented that theory in a court of law.

shirley2

Shirley Performing A Baptism, Like a Boss

Pastor Shirley Lee, a longtime activist and member of the Episcopal clergy, was mentioned in deposition and again in trial testimony. The State of Alaska insinuated that the pastor was part of a conspiracy to intimidate, bribe, or harass witnesses. A pastor. This grandmother, pictured here to your left. She runs a homeless shelter, leads services on Sunday, and holds memorial services for people who are unclaimed or whose deaths are unsolved. Pretty gangsta.

 

Unlike Shirley, who may qualify for sainthood, Ricko and I are not perfect angels, but we are good human beings. Our horns may be holding up our halos, but they are there nonetheless. And the reality is that the innocence movement is controversial and unpopular – of course it was pioneered by rebels.

Ricko-and-kids

Ricko and his actual gang

Ricko DeWilde, owner of Native art themed clothing line HYDZ, was repeatedly named in the vague but bold conspiracy touted by the State. Adrienne Bachman said, in court, as if it were fact that Ricko had assaulted Arlo Olson when they were together in jail. This is really problematic. First, Ricko and Arlo were never in jail together. Second, Arlo was not assaulted in jail according to any records, staff, or perhaps most importantly by Olson himself. Olson did say that he was picked on and treated poorly in prison after a news article revealed him to be an informant, but lent no credibility to the idea that he was the victim of a gang conspiracy or any assault.

And, according to Bachman, it was I who ordered the beating, as part of my role as a prison gangster.

EugeneintrotimeOne piece of evidence was introduced, and then rejected by the court, as “evidence” of my gang affiliation. It was a letter from Eugene Vent some years ago. In a six-page diatribe about the evils or racism and how the prison system encourages the internalization of racist stereotypes as a means of control, how that same prison system is a microcosm of society, and racism and identity by ethnicity is a construction of the majority to oppress the minority, Eugene used the word “brotherhood,” and once he capitalized it. He also capitalized words like “defense,” “potential,” and “tomorrow.” To my sincere frustration, Eugene does not use capital letters or quotation marks appropriately all the time. Yet, that does not mean I am in a gang, only that I was correct when I warned him that alternative grammar has unintended consequences (or “Consequences” as he might say). Nor does it mean that anyone was assaulted.

Judge Paul Lyle, who presided over the hearings, was quick to squash the theory. He asked Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman whether she “had any evidence at all linking the petitioners or this witness to a gang or an assault,” to which she had to answer truthfully, “no.

Yet, despite the admitted absolute lack of evidence, our names have appeared in the newspaper alongside these accusations. Our personal belongings and communications have been scrutinized and, as of today, remain in the possession of the State of Alaska.

A secondary goal of subpoena may have been to keep myself and reporter Brian O’Donoghue out of the courtroom in an effort to control media coverage of the trial. The State invoked a rule banning named witnesses, which just happened to include the most prominent reporter and blogger covering the case. If that was an intention, it was simply another gift, as without the subpoena we would not have had an opportunity to reflect on what such a display of power means and, in turn, write about it.

And now that I have been asked questions, under threat of penalty under the law, about things as incredibly unrelated and inappropriate as whom I have had sex with, I have something to say about that. Two things, really. First, readers, just know that this still happens, even today and even in the country that worships at the altar of personal freedom. Second, and more importantly, thank you to the State of Alaska and thank you Adrienne Bachman. Everything is an opportunity. You have given us an opportunity to turn to those who came forward and say, look, we kept our promise. We were right there in the crosshairs alongside you and you were not alone. You gave me a chance to turn to my children and say, we do not participate in rape culture and shaming of other people by agreeing to play the game. We are not and will not be ashamed of our pasts or our mistakes; we will own our choices and celebrate our lessons. Watch me, learn. The world says be afraid and be ashamed, and part of me wants to listen to that. But my better angels say, screw those guys, set down that shame it belongs to them, and do not agree to play a losing game. Always listen to that voice.

After that speech my son said, “You’re a really good mom.”

My oldest daughter said, “Haters gonna hate, just keep your head up like #noshame.”

And my youngest said, “I wanna come next time, I’ll bring popcorn.” And then she gave me a hug and we all laughed and were better for it.

At church another pastor remarked about Shirley that you could always find the true disciples in the newspaper making waves.

While the state was busy hypothesizing that Ricko was the muscle of the conspiracy, he was busy welcoming a new son to the world and hosting yet another fundraiser to make the world a better place.

 

We are blessed.

Journalist Under Fire in Fairbanks Four Hearing

BrianO'DonoghueThe bearded and bespectacled man on the witness stand looked every bit the part of reporter and professor as eyes darted from one end of the courtroom to the other, following the volley of words between attorneys arguing about the man’s very presence in the courtroom. The notion alone of a reporter on the witness stand who has neither witnessed a crime nor participated in one, but has simply researched and written articles, is unsettling enough to spark debate. Over the objections of media attorney John McKay, to the horror of fellow journalists, and the great fascination of spectators, the reporter was indeed called to testify in the evidentiary hearing for four men who are widely believed to be wrongfully convicted of an eighteen year old murder.

O’Donoghue came to cover the murder of John Hartman and the convictions of four Native American youth quite by accident. The reporter was not assigned the story when a fifteen-year-old found brutally beaten to death on a downtown Alaskan street corner and four young Native men were swiftly arrested for the crime, but he recalled shrugging off the early gaps in the case narrative. In general, he said, the case seemed straightforward and properly covered.

“I will defend the paper’s coverage as free of bias and largely driven by official statements, typical of any high-profile event. The tone was set in the police press conference that Monday following the crime. Detective Keller announced the case solved through confessions, attributing the crime to a ‘spree of violence.’ That seemed definitive.”

But, the reporter would soon discover, the case conclusion was anything but definitive. In addition to writing as a senior reporter, O’Donoghue was the editor of the opinion page at the local newspaper, where letters to the editor insisting the four accused were innocent did not slow down even as the guilty verdicts rolled in. By the time O’Donoghue looked at the case the four accused had already been arrested, indicted, tried, and convicted in three separate trials, and on the surface the case was open and shut. The verdicts were so widely accepted as fact by the press that the case would likely have disappeared from the media entirely if not for the letters landing so persistently on the reporter’s desk.

“I was fact-checking a letter to the editor from a man named Curtis Sommer. He raised so many potentially libelous questions that I had to keep digging deeper and deeper into court files for verification, in the process finding more and more truth to his claims about the investigation, flaws and testimony conflict unresolved in court.”

O’Donoghue’s initial casual research into the case would spark an investigative reporting project that spanned more than fifteen years. His decision to fact-check the letter would ultimately lead the reporter from the comfortable anonymity of the newsroom, into a courtroom, and into the news himself.

newspaper3The convictions of the four accused rested very heavily on the eye witness testimony of a man named Arlo Olson, whose testimony was the subject of the letter to the editor that sparked O’Donoghue’s curiosity. Olson was presented at trial as a moral man doing his rather heroic civic duty by coming forward with his account of seeing the four accused men together that night. But O’Donoghue rapidly uncovered a more complex vision of the star witness than the one presented at court, and subsequently printed in the media. Olson was facing charges for beating a pregnant woman when he came forward as a witness. Some months later he was granted a sentence with no jail time, with the judge’s stated motivation for the leniency that Olson had “assisted authorities.” Olson was a far cry from the academic and clean-cut young man the jury was led to believe stood before them, and in fact had a long and troubling criminal record. O’Donoghue also realized that Olson had been standing 550 feet away from the assault he claimed to have witnessed, in the dark, drunk, and in a crowd of people who all claimed to have seen nothing. O’Donoghue’s earliest research into the star witness produced even more startling revelations that the transcripts and public records. Olson had recanted, multiple times, including to the prosecuting attorney for the state who threatened Olson with perjury if he refused to testify.

The reporter sought out the star witness for an interview and found Arlo Olson in jail and willing to talk. Olson admitted that his testimony had been false and that he had not seen the four accused that night. He had a series of lengthy conversations with Olson, who wove stories about his troubled life and relationship complaints into his account of how his trial testimony came to pass. Olson told the reporter that he had legal troubles and was struggling with addiction in October of 1997, when police officer Aaron Ring approached him to see if he had seen anything the night in question. Officer Ring, Olson claimed, fed him information and pressured him until he agreed to the officer’s version of what Olson saw. Then, Olson claimed, Officer Ring and prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant worked together to coach Olson’s testimony and threatened him with prosecution for perjury if he refused testify in court. O’Donoghue recorded the conversations, lawfully, a process he eventually described in detail in his writing, and continued to research the case.

O’Donoghue reached out the convicted men. He corresponded with Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, George Frese, and Marvin Roberts. All four of the men remained steadfast in their claims of innocence. He corresponded regularly with Roberts.

As the research progressed, O’Donoghue left the Newsminer and began teaching journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He used his investigative journalism course as a lab for the complex and evolving work on the Hartman case. His students dissected the case, constructed timelines, interviewed witnesses, and ultimately secured access to interview the convicted men in prison.

O’Donoghue’s continued investigation into the case with the help of energetic would-be journalists would ultimately reveal that Olson was hardly the only facet of the case that seemed riddled with contradictions and was vastly different than what had been presented in such an open-and-shut fashion in the early media accounts and trials. His work culminated in the 2008 publication of a newspaper series called “Decade of Doubt.”

Npaper1The articles consumed the front page of the paper for seven consecutive days and revealed the many inconsistencies in the investigation, the Olson inconsistencies, unearthed an illegal jury experiment, explored the details of the alleged confessions, presented the possibility of alternate suspects, and generally revealed to the community of Fairbanks that the case that had shocked them all in its brutality yet strengthened their faith in local justice may not be what it initially appeared. The series also gave a public voice for the first time to many Native community members and leaders who had long held the four were innocent.

The community was as polarized by the series as they had been by the crime. Although the assertions from a sector of the community that the men were innocent were as old as the case, the “Decade of Doubt” series brought the controversy into the mainstream community, and it was clear that the case was not going to go away any time soon. The series landed O’Donoghue and his work in the line of vision of powerful prosecutors, police officers, and politicians who all had a vested interest in the convictions of the four men.

As the years went on and more and more information came out about the case, O’Donoghue continued to cover the case. The revelation about illegal jury experiments during the original trials contributed to a successful appeal. O’Donoghue continued to cover the case as it wound through a maze of legal victories and failures, ultimately terminating when the Alaska Supreme Court was given the case and after years of consideration simply declined to make any decision at all.

O’Donoghue covered the inception of the Alaska Innocence Project, their decision to take on the case, the renewed effort to expose the wrongful conviction within the legal system, and the huge grassroots social movement in support of the men now popularly known as the “Fairbanks Four.” Indeed, the reporter’s coverage spanned a decade and a half, and saw the convicted men from youth to the cusp of middle age. The reporter himself had gone all gray by the time his coverage was interrupted by a subpoena from the State of Alaska demanding his letters, interviews, phone calls, research, notes, emails, and more.

The reporter refused to hand over materials which he believed disclosing would violate the constitutional right to freedom of the press, but was still forced to hand over a large volume of the information demanded.

Brian O’Donoghue’s work as a journalist secured him a place on the State of Alaska’s witness list.

They called him to the stand and the asked a series of questions aimed, presumably, at insinuating the journalist was somehow responsible for Arlo Olson recanting his testimony and that in general his press coverage of the case had contaminated the case to such a point that the witnesses he spoke to should be discounted. Embedded in the questions were a series of accusations.

The State accused O’Donoghue of recording his interviews with Arlo Olson secretly. They had no evidence to back the claim. In reality, O’Donoghue clearly indicated to Olson that they were on the record. “I lawfully recorded them and I had put on the record that I was interviewing him on the record,” O’Donoghue said on the stand.

Although the conversations were clearly recorded within the confines of the law and ordinary trade practices, it was striking that the State found it so objectionable. They of course did not deny that Olson had repeatedly recanted his testimony in 2001, as he had just days earlier in the same proceedings, but just insinuated that they didn’t like it. The move likely backfired as it led to the admission of Olson’s previous statements, which match his 2015 claims that his testimony was false, underscoring the likelihood of an alternative motivation in calling the reporter.

The State accused O’Donoghue of providing Olson legal advice. Olson had repeatedly told the reporter that he falsified his testimony because, among other reasons, he was threatened with prosecution for perjury if he recanted. O’Donoghue suggested to Olson that other sources had told O’Donoghue that Olson’s recantation was unlikely to be believable to most courts, save for his assertion that he feared prosecution. O’Donoghue did not tell Olson what he should do, only what others had said about the general reception and what his research had revealed. His exact words to Olson were, “It would be very difficult for them to, for the court to, accept that one way or another that you would change what you’ve said and sworn to already. The only kind of thing that would really persuade them about this, apparently, is for you to really persuade them that you were really scared about the whole perjury thing.”

The state insinuated that O’Donoghue had been too friendly to Marvin Roberts. Not that he had conspired with him, influenced him, and engaged in any activity beyond correspondence….simply that O’Donoghue had been too friendly. The questioning was so irrelevant and absurd that it would have been a hilarious parody of itself had the stakes not been so high. Because when our press is under fire, democracy is under fire.

democaracyfreepressAlongside the reporter and professor under fire in the courtroom, the very concept of freedom of the press and freedom of speech in Alaska came under scrutiny. As the reporter’s phone calls were played and his emails were read line by line, there was a message between the lines clearly communicated to the press of Alaska – if you write something your government doesn’t like, there are consequences.

The court proceedings in 2015 something important in common with the original troubled trials in that there was much more than met the eye to nearly every witness and exhibit presented. And that underscores the necessity of a free press in making the truth public. In the confines of a court, under the auspices of regulation and procedure, only part of the story can ever be told. If we are ever to see justice, and see revelation of the absolute truth, it requires a press free to report the truth without fear of retaliation.

O'Donoghue

Newsminer photo, 2015

When O’Donoghue was released from the witness stand he took his place in the gallery among the rest of the press. Previous to his release as a witness it would have been illegal for him to sit there and cover the story he had covered for more than fifteen years.

A lesser journalist would have backed down from this story long ago. Great journalists write until the story ends. Great journalists fear the end of the free press more than embarrassment. Brian O’Donoghue is certainly that kind of journalist, and we owe him a debt of gratitude as a community and state. Thank you, Brian O’Donoghue, for reporting the news, for not taking sides, for not worrying about ruffled feathers or bruised egos, and thank you for teaching the next generation of journalists to do the same.