Seventeen Octobers – The Anniversary of John Hartman’s Murder

spruceAs the dwindling blue-gray light casts shadows off spruce trees onto the new snow this October night in Fairbanks, Alaska, those who live here know that soon the light will heed to darkness. Night will fall, and each day that we move toward winter solstice the night will fall a bit earlier. This place – the vast expanses of sky and land that make up the last frontier – will be nearly swallowed by darkness for months. It is this time of the year that it is hard to truly remember that the light will return. The days move forward and we arc, always, back toward spring. Toward light. Yet in October, we can feel the darkness on our heels.

It was on an October night exactly seventeen years ago that a darkness came upon many lives. It changed us. It changed too many to enumerate. It altered something, and for so long it seemed a darkness that would never lift. Even now, as we greet the anniversary of a night that changed so many lives, there are moments it is hard to truly remember that darkness will eventually give way to light.

Yet, it is a gift to fight. It is a gift to be here, in darkness and light, in moments of faith and doubt. No matter the hardships, no matter the darkness, to live is a wonderful thing. Life is so ephemeral. A bright light like a flash, a fleeting glance at all that is brilliant and real. And although a book could be written – countless articles have been written, a blog is being written at this moment – about all the people who lost something to the darkness on an October night exactly seventeen years ago, only one person lost all.

JohnHArtmanJohn Hartman was killed on the corner of 9th Avenue and Barnette seventeen years ago tonight. He was a boy. He was nothing but boundless potential and he was full of life. That light ebbed and went out seventeen years ago. John Hartman has been gone now more years than he was alive. And nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever eclipse the importance of his existence, the tragedy of his death.

Tonight we pause to remember. We remember to never forget John Hartman. And into the darkening night we deliver this prayer – may all that were altered or harmed on the night of October 10, 1997 feel peace. May this prayer find its way to the sky and into the awareness of those who have moved on from this earth. May the legacy of John Hartman be peace, justice, and above all, a reverence for life. Live. Live honestly, and live well, every day hold to the gift it is to simply be alive.

As darkness falls tonight and any night, never let it rob you of the knowledge and faith that morning always returns. The light is coming.

 

Deranged State of Alaska Insists that Innocent Men Should Remain in Prison

queenofheartsThe State of Alaska filed their response to the Innocence Project filing that rejected their claims. You can and should read about that HERE. Because, honestly, the state’s response is so stupid that it isn’t even fun to write about and probably no picnic to read about either. And it has left me thinking about the crazy, mean Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. Remember her? I am feeling pretty convinced that if we put her in charge of the justice system in the State of Alaska we would be making a fair trade in terms of ethics and competence. But at least we would have painted roses and maybe a catchy theme song.

The State of Alaska started this response period of with….wait for it….yet another request for an extension! When they requested an extension I had high hopes that they may have something at least new to say. Alas, it appears they needed more time to simply regurgitate their last filing, with the spelling errors mostly cleaned up, and the rather embarrassing, tasteless, dishonest attack on a witness removed.

But the basics are the same. The State of Alaska is willing to have an evidentiary hearing on the Fairbanks Four case. They just don’t want any of the evidence to be allowed in. They surmise that in this evidence hearing they do not want any evidence that will bring Alaskans “closure” on this issue. Apparently, they honestly believe their citizens are so unaware or stupid that we will accept an evidence hearing without the evidence as closure and go on with our lives, pretending that they didn’t lock up innocent children. Pretending that they didn’t leave serial killers on our streets. Pretending that they didn’t lie, hide, cheat, and bribe. We cannot have justice, so they offer “closure” through a review of evidence with no evidence allowed.

I can see why – it is evidence likely to set innocent men free. It is evidence likely to make it crystal clear that the Fairbanks Police Department chief hid a murder confession. That the DA hid a murder confession. That the courts are still hiding what appears to be a separate murder confession. That witnesses were harassed. That witnesses were bribed. And, most horrifyingly, that if the people sworn to seek and uphold justice in 1997 had tried even a little bit to do that, not only would four innocent men be free, but at least five other lives could have been saved, perhaps more. It’s the brutal and unflinching truth, and the truth is the rattling skeleton in the State of Alaska’s gleaming mansion of lies.

The State argues that the confession of William Holmes should be thrown out and considered hearsay. We discussed that at length HERE the last time they made the argument.

The State argues that the scientific evidence should not be allowed in because progression in the forensic sciences is not relevant to post conviction relief filings. I mean, who needs science, right? The progression in the sciences has more than doubled our life expectancy and led to such revelations as the world not being flat, the existence of space, and the cure to the diseases that used to kill nearly all of us. But, scientific progress isn’t for the State of Alaska.

In a nutshell, the state believes a confession of murder from the murderer is “hearsay” and that modern science has no place in a courtroom. Even though the filing is full of words and legal references (as a matter of fact, in one jewel of a statement they attempt to discuss precedent by citing an unpublished opinion that they then acknowledge does not set precedent), all I can picture is that crazy queen. Our system indeed seems that absurd, deranged, and sick with power. It would be easy to make fun of that for 5,000 words. Yet, the state opinion is so ridiculous it is essentially a parody of itself. And, they are spending your tax dollars to do this absurd work, much more slowly than necessary!

In the end, there is nothing funny about it. This isn’t a movie and it isn’t a joke. Lives are at stake, and our justice system is sick, sick, sick. It remains sad, it remains shocking, it remains heartbreakingly painful that the State of Alaska is so invested in protecting themselves from embarrassment that there is no limit to the lives they will ruin, deaths they will turn a blind eye to, and lows they will stoop to. But, it has been made clear that they have no plan to change their tactic.

It’s an election year. Alaskans, you might want to ask your politicians about this issue. Surely, we can do better than this.

 

Scott Davison Is Not Only Credible, He is ADMIRABLE

truthIn late 1997 Lathrop student Scott Davison skipped school to smoke pot with friend Matt Ellsworth and fellow student Jason Wallace. While the three young men got high and talked, Wallace made a statement that would prove life-altering for Davison.

According to Davison, Jason Wallace told them that he and his friends had beaten and killed John Hartman. He detailed a night of driving around looking for victims that culminated in the fatal beating for which four other young men had just been charged. Wallace ended the story with a threat. If Davison or Ellsworth ever repeated what he had just told them, he would kill them as well.

At the time, Davison was only seventeen years old. He was a child. And he was now a child burdened with a terrible and violent secret and the very real possibility that unburdening himself of the secret would result in his death. To keep a secret is to carry a weight. It drags you down and it permeates the deepest recesses of the mind. It hardens the heart. What an awful curse to be placed on the shoulders of a child.

Davison, understandably, said nothing to anyone. Years passed. If there was ever any doubt in his mind that Wallace was capable of making good on his threat, that doubt would have been entirely destroyed when just five years after Davison heard Wallace confess his first murder, Wallace killed again. On Christmas Eve of 2002 Jason Wallace beat a young woman to death with a hammer, crossed town to stab another man repeatedly with a screwdriver, and then returned to the woman’s apartment to set her lifeless body on fire. Clearly, Wallace was not only capable of killing, he was capable of inflicting unthinkably depraved torture and killing in cold blood. He was capable of killing an unarmed woman on Christmas Eve. He carried within him a darkness beyond imagination. So, understandably, Scott Davison continued to hold his secret.

Yet, a secret of that magnitude is a heavy burden. It is difficult to imagine the internal tug-of-war that any human being holding that information would endure. On one hand, innocent men are in prison. On the other hand, the system in place put them there and could not be trusted to allow the information to free them. On one hand, Wallace was locked up and couldn’t just show up at the door. On the other hand, Davison himself was in and out of jail at that time. On one hand, his life could be destroyed or taken if he revealed his truth. On the other hand, four other men’s lives had been destroyed. Hartman’s life had been taken.

Davison must have weighed these things over, and over, and over. Like a stone tumbled for years until finally the rough edges are worn away and the stone is smooth. And after years of that internal dialogue, Davison made a choice.

He had nothing to gain. Absolutely nothing to gain. Nothing, that is, besides becoming a man who was given a choice and made the right one. With his life and dignity and reputation at risk, Davison walked into the Innocence Project office and revealed the secret he had been so unfairly lain in his life’s path on a snowy October afternoon in 1997.

There is a reason for everything. Davison was not the victim of happenstance. To be the bearer of a truth so heavy was a task he was fated for, because Davison did something with it that few are capable of. He risked his life, he signed up for humiliation, risked retaliation, reputation – he laid all he had to offer down in service of a higher truth.

Much of the State of Alaska’s filing made in response to the Alaska Innocence Project’s aimed at demonstrating the innocence of the Fairbanks Four is focused on the task of discrediting, humiliating, and slandering Scott Davison.

Although prosecutor Adrienne Bachman waxes disjointedly and frequently about hearsay throughout the twenty-three page document, claiming that the Holmes confession and Davison’s statements are both hearsay and therefore have no place in a court of law, the remainder of the filing appears to consist nearly entirely of actual hearsay generated by Bachman herself. She makes one claim after another about the character of Scott Davison, yet the filing contains no documentation to support that her claims are factual.

Bachman berates and belittles Davison in every imaginable way. She calls him an informant in one breath, and with the next says he did not follow through with a request to be an informant. She speculates about the relationships Davison had, claiming he was “charged often and convicted occasionally” of domestic violence. Which, of course, means what it says – despite frequently being accused of domestic violence inside a relationship, he was seldom found to be guilty of the charges. Not that the nature of his relationship drama has a thing at all to do with his credibility.

Bachman asserts in her filing that because Scott Davison has nothing to gain by coming forward, and that in the past when he had legal problems he could have attempted to leverage this information to ask for leniency in his own sentencing and did not, that he should not be believed. Read that one twice. She says there is nothing in this for Scott Davison personally, and somehow that makes him less credible. Umm…okay, Adrienne. In all reality, the fact that he has nothing to gain and so much to lose bolsters the credibility of his statement.

She further attacks his credibility because he did not come forward in 1997 when Wallace first confessed to him. Yet, Davison was a teenage boy when he heard the confession of Wallace. Wallace had literally just gotten away with murder, and threatened to kill Davison should he come forward. It is unreasonable for anyone to think that a child sworn to secrecy under threat of death would call the police to tell them the secret. A secret he had heard while skipping school to get high. It is reasonable to expect an adult to make that judgment – to come forward despite the risks. And when Davison became an adult he used the judgment of one and came forward. But in 1997 he responded the way any thoughtful person would expect a child to respond. With fear. He was scared, as anyone would be.

As a young man Scott Davison clearly took a troubled path. It was that troubled path that crossed with Wallace’s. If not for the poor life choices Davison was making in the late 90’s, he would have never encountered Wallace. Although Bachman attacks his credibility based on his past criminal activities, it is only logical that anyone who had credible information on Wallace would be an associate. And most of Wallace’s associates would have had criminal tendencies. Brids of a feather, as they say.

Davison was a drug user and committed a series of crimes, primarily domestic violence and violations of the original conditions of release which all stemmed from an incident in 1998 when Davison apparently robbed someone and injured them in the course of the robbery. She describes this in such a way as to lead a reader to believe that Scott Davison ran up to an old woman, slashed her face, and ran off with her purse. Although her characterization of the events is dramatic, it is unsupported and irrelevant.

Scott Davison has clearly made mistakes in his life. He has made choices I cannot and will not defend, and he has made choices which are not admirable. Most human beings have made choices that are not defensible, and that we are ashamed of. Most of us would be devastated to read our regrets, shame, and sins on the front page of the paper. Scott Davison may have made some bad choices, but he made one decision that I find heroic. With nothing to gain and everything to lose, he opted to tell the truth and do the right thing for four strangers. For fellow human beings that he did not know. He laid his life on the line for men he never knew. And that, my friends, is one of the most courageous things I have seen a person do during my time on Earth.

When the investigators for the state contacted Davison he stuck with his story. They attack his credibility on minor details – in one version of events he claimed they smoked pot inside a car, in another version outside, etc. But on this point he did not waiver: Jason Wallace had confessed in detail to murdering John Hartman in 1997. When the state was unable to attack the factual merit of Davison’s story, they attempted to attack his will. They attempted to humiliate and discredit him as a human being when they realized that he could not be discredited as a witness.

Scott Davison, wherever you are, thank you. From the bottom of our hearts. Matt Ellsworth, wherever you are, please, DO THE RIGHT THING. That secret was bestowed upon two men. Two men have turned this over and over in their minds and made very different decisions. Davison’s is to speak, Ellsworth’s is to remain silent. We have said before and will say again the enemy of the truth is not a lie, it is silence. It is time to speak up. Four innocent men are in prison. Many murder victims followed Hartman and their lives could have been saved. Ask yourself, are you the kind of man who in the face of oppression with lives on the line speaks or remains silent? What would you wish from your fellow man if you were the the victim of injustice? It is understandable to be afraid then, and now. But how does a secret keep you safe when murderers know you are keeping it? The time for secrets is over. Scott Davison should not have to stand alone. You should be standing behind him. And if you do, we will stand with you.

Imagine hearing a confession of murder as a kid. Imagine carrying that secret for years. Imagine mustering the courage to speak out. And imagine, for a moment, what it must feel like to be so personally and obscenely attacked as retaliation for doing the right thing.

Whatever his past misdeeds, Scott Davison did what the State of Alaska will not and more: he accepted the risk of humiliation and even death to protect the concept of justice. Scott, thank you. We are so very sorry for the way you are being treated, and admire your decision to come forward. No matter what contents of your past the state chooses to parade around, your courage in this case has revealed the content of your heart to be good. Keep on keeping on!

 

State Prosecutor Bachman’s Astounding Interview With Indian Country Today

truthWe have been pleased to see the story of the Fairbanks Four debut onto various national media outlets, but have been perhaps most gratified to see the case appear on Indian Country Today. This story has universal meaning and all Native rights issues are, at their core, human rights issues. That said, history indicates that progress is rarely made on Native issues unless and until the indigenous people of America join forces. So, we have been especially pleased to know that the story of the Fairbanks Four is reaching across tribes. This story is new to most Native people only in its specifics. Mistreatment and dismissal at the hands of the American government is, of course, a very old and familiar story to people of all tribes.

Indian Country Today’s latest article on the Fairbanks Four case is an interview with state prosecutor Adrienne Bachman, who is responsible for heading the state’s review of and response to the recent Alaska Innocence Project filing. Nothing would please us more than to tell you that the window this interview provides into the state’s perspective gave us a hope that the state intends to lead a fair and balanced investigation in the interest of justice. However, in this interview Adrienne Bachman reminds us a great deal of her predecessors – the interview contains a few politically correct general statements and an awful lot of detailed statements which indicate that Adrienne Bachman stands firmly where Jeff O’Bryant stood before her – determined to uphold a prosecution through any means necessary. And the devil, as they say, is indeed in the details.

Read the interview for yourself HERE. Below, we would like to highlight some of the more fascinating lies it contains.

“All of the arguments currently made in the petition were made during the original trial, except the Holmes affidavit. Only the Holmes allegations are new.”

This particular statement is one of the most bold, baffling, and patently false of them all. The Alaska Innocence Project filing contained over 130 pages. Less than ten were dedicated to the Holmes confession. Some other highlights? The eyewitness expert who determined that the testimony of Arlo Olson was scientifically impossible. The causative instrument forensic specialist who debunked the state claim that George Frese’s footwear matched the victim’s injuries. The affidavits by half a dozen others, including one that outlines a detailed confession made by another of the five perpetrators Jason Wallace, and language which strongly infers that the contents of the sealed brief contain yet another confession. The statement that the only new allegations contained in the filing are contained in less than 10% is outrageous. We will hope for the best here and assume that perhaps the prosecutor was only able to read the first few pages on her month-long vacation. Read the entire AKIP filing for yourself HERE. Read about SOME of the additional new evidence HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE or even, HERE.

“The petition characterizes the original evidence, but a review of the actual trial testimony shows that there were many additional pieces of evidence that are never mentioned by either the petition or the newspaper articles that seem to form the basis for much of the public opinion that lingers about this case. Examples include the various admissions or confessions made by three of the four.”

Well, this is not so much a mischaracterization as it is an absolute lie. Bachman states here that an example of evidence that has never made it into the newspaper or the AKIP filing includes “various admissions or confessions made by three of the four.” The interrogations and police interviews can be read HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE and just in case you want to be sure you can find them in the press, take a look HERE and HERE.

Eugene Vent, after 11 hours of interrogation in total, made incriminating statements. Read about his take on that HERE. The method used to obtain the statements HERE. George Frese also made incriminating statements in the case, after hours of interrogation, and sandwiched between insistence on his innocence, a request to go home, and statements that he didn’t”actually remember any of that shit.” George’s statements were not allowed into trial after the court determined they were ILLEGALLY OBTAINED.

For readers who struggle as much as the prosecutor with counting in the single digits, that makes for TWO people who made highly questionable statements but certainly statements it would be reasonable to classify as “admissions or confessions.” Her assertion that she is in possession of three admissions is patently false.

“The state is committed to conducting a prompt, thorough and thoughtful investigation of the Holmes allegations. It is a top priority.”

Sigh. Here is a statement we WISH was true. In reality, the state waited almost a month into their 45 day response time to even begin work on this case, and in an initial interview with the Daily News Miner Bachman made it clear that her first priority in regards to the Fairbanks Four case was for the state to review the original case. You know, THEIR case, which is apparently quite unfamiliar to them. In her response to the AKIP filing Bachman made it clear that her actual first priority during the beginning of her review was her “long-standing” vacation plans. Don’t take our word for it, read all about that HERE.

No one on the jury thought there was a reasonable doubt about their guilt based on all of the evidence presented at trial.

The first jury to hear a case against George Frese ended in a hung jury.One juror, convinced the accusations were the result of a conspiracy, locked themselves in the bathroom and refused to come out. It has always seemed, to us, that juror had doubts.

 

The interviews of both men were fair and above board. The police did not supply the details of the beating, Mr. Vent did. He named his co-defendants as involved in the beating, not the police. As a further example, Eugene Vent told the police that he’d given [John Hartman] some gum. Since the police had not mentioned chewing gum, but did find a small pack at the scene, Mr. Vent’s own words told the world that he had been there – no matter how much he now attempts to back away from those statements.

Okay, she does know we can read, right? I am going to skip quoting anything related to gum from Eugene’s interrogation, and use a quote I find more suitable from Eugene while being interrogated: “I can’t believe what you’re saying right now.”

Like, really. I can’t believe what you’re saying right now. Sadly, that is not true. In 1997 being tricked and lied to by people meant to protect you and uphold justice seemed unbelievable. Today, it seems routine. Live and learn.

We would like to encourage all of you to read the interview with Bachman for yourself, and any and all of the case materials she refers to. We would further encourage you all to let your elected leaders know whether or not you think this case was handled properly in 1997, and whether or not much has changed since then. Although it would be possible to pick this interview apart line by line, we will leave off here with a quote from us, and a quote from someone far wiser.

At the end of the day, only one of two things can be true: either Bachman lacks the ability to read and understand the material that she is responsible for reviewing, or else she has a full grasp on the information and is choosing to lie. Neither is acceptable. We have said for the last sixteen years without abating that the State of Alaska has demonstrated a lack of ability and propensity toward dishonesty in this case that indicated it should be removed from their jurisdiction, handled by a federal agency, and that each indication of corruption, perjury, bribery, racism, and civil rights violation should be investigated thoroughly by a federal body as well. We think we have done a good job laying out our extensive reasons for taking that position; we would like to thank prosecutor Bachman for taking the time to do several press interviews that demonstrate state bias more effectively than we could ever hope to do on our own. – Fairbanks Four Blog, today, right now.
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. – Isaiah 10: 1-2

State of Alaska Seeks to Delay Response in Fairbanks Four Case Until May 2014

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Yesterday the State of Alaska filed their response to the post conviction relief application filed on behalf of the Fairbanks Four by the Alaska Innocence Project. In their response the State of Alaska asked for the court to extend their allotted 45 day response time to May 15, 2014 – over seven months from the date of the Alaska Innocence Project filing. 

The filling by Innocence Project contained two matching confessions, one given by Jason Wallace in 1997, the second given in 2011 by William Holmes, and alluded to the existence of a third confession filed under seal for court consideration. These confessions represent only a fraction of the evidence contained in the filing supporting the innocence of the Fairbanks Four and the guilt of the other men. William Holmes and Jason Wallace implicate themselves, Rashan Brown, Shelmar Johnson, and Marquez Pennington – all men with lengthy criminal records. Three of the five named are behind bars for unrelated multiple murders, and the remaining two reside in the greater Fairbanks area.

State Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman, who is the prosecutor assigned to the case by the state, filed to motion requesting an extension until May 2014 and made the unusual and striking choice to list one of her reasons for delay as her personal long-standing vacation plans. She also went on to explain that it would take the state time to familiarize themselves with the original case (their case) and that after the lengthy review of their original files they would look at the new information presented in the filing.

When the state of Alaska was handed information that strongly implicated their own employees in conduct that resulted in the death of at least six people, the 16-year long wrongful imprisonment of four young men, a complete breakdown in public faith in the system, they made a press release assuring the public that they were sure they were right, but would “independently’ investigate themselves. When this press release came out there was a significant response from the citizens of Alaska and their leaders, concerned that the tone of the press release was dismissive. The State was then handed resolutions from the largest tribal organizations in Alaska and a letter from the Senator Lisa Murkowski, all containing polite but direct requests for the case to be given the full attention of the State. With all of this in hand, they ASKED FOR A SEVEN MONTH EXTENSION.

For the first month following the filing by Alaska Innocence Project, the state did nothing. Literally nothing. Thirty-seven days into their allotted forty-five day response time, the State announced that they had just begun their review.

On the last day remaining in their response time, the State of Alaska asked for the lengthy extension, which contained their plans for the second month of the seven months the requested to investigate: NOTHING. Nothing, that is, pertaining to the case. The second month will be used to accomadate the long standing vacation plans of Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman.

The state of Alaska has at their disposal the investigative might of the Alaska State Troopers, Alaska Bureau of Investigation, City Police, the Attorney General’s office, hundreds of attorneys, boundless access to the prison system, and virtually unlimited spending capacity. Clearly, the State of Alaska can use the tax dollars its citizens contribute to expedite the handling of this case to a timeframe that reflects the seriousness of the charges levied in the Alaska Innocence Project Filing. 

Their response is obscene. The idea that a state paid attorney is perhaps at this moment fanning herself on a sandy beach while four innocent men sit in prison is offensive to humanity. I wonder, while she watches her own children play, if she ever considers the children of other women. I can think of a few.

John Hartman, for example, who was kicked so brutally that he was left nearly unrecognizable, thrown on the side of the road, and died a unthinkably painful death. 

Teacka Bakote, whom Jason Wallace beat to death with a hammer before he lit her on fire.

Hakeem Bryant and Christopher Martin. William Homles left them on the side of the road, dead, just five years after they left Hartman the same way.

Julie Ann Wilde. Rashan Brown shot her in cold blood. 

Victor Torres. He was only 19 years old when Rashan Brown murdered him.

All of those people were human beings, who will never take a family vacation. Their mothers will never hear their voices again. They will not be coming home for Christmas.

George Frese, who will fall asleep tonight behind the concrete walls of Alaska’s highest security prison. George’s daughter, Tiliisia, who has celebrated 16 birthdays without her father. 

Marvin Roberts, a high school valedictorian who was headed to study engineering in college on scholarship when he was sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Eugene Vent, who was only 17 years old when he last saw his family. He is in his thirties now.

Kevin Pease, whose mother Carol died in a fluke accident in 2006. Kevin was, of course, not able to take a quick vacation from prison even to bury his mother.

And the faceless. The missing. The victims not yet named. 

ImageThe State of Alaska is an institution, but it is a human institution. The Governor, The Attorney General, The Prosecutor, The Lead Investigator – these are all just titles. Surely, at home, someone calls these people Mom, Dad, Grandpa, Auntie, and the like. They are all human beings, and I wonder, does it ever cross their mind that the words and names and numbers and deadlines on their desk are just titles, and that behind them, human beings? That these are other people’s children?

Behind the cry for justice is a simple proclamation: we are human beings. Just as significant as you, our children just as precious and loved as your own.

We are all human beings. And when human beings are at stake in every possible sense, there isn’t time for vacation. It is time for as many hands a possible. This investigation should be handled with as much precision, care, accuracy, and urgency as possible, because human lives are at stake. That doesn’t mean that they investigation should be rushed or done poorly. It doesn’t mean that no one should take a vacation or get to enjoy their family. It simply means that this case should be handled in a manner which reflects the seriousness of the situation, the stakes, and the resources the state has at hand.

We wish, for these people in power, that they may come to understand the importance of the work they do, and with that understanding, proceed into their work with dignity as well as perfect memory for their own humanity and the humanity of those around them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

State of Alaska Fails to Investigate ‘Fairbanks Four’ Case In 45 Days, Says They WIll Take “Many Months”

 

ImageWhen the Alaska Innocence Project submitted an application for Post Conviction Relief on September 25, 2013 the clock began ticking on the State of Alaska. They were given the standard forty-five days to respond to the filing. Many residents of the interior Alaska community of Fairbanks wished that they would act more swiftly, given that the contents of the filing indicated that not only had four young men been wrongfully incarcerated for sixteen years, but three of the five men named as the true killers of John Hartman had gone on to commit brutal murders of unarmed civilians within a small handful of years following Hartman’s death. Perhaps more disturbingly, the other two alleged by the filing to have viciously beaten John Hartman to death for Saturday night amusement are free and still roaming through the streets of Fairbanks, Alaska. The gravity to the allegations – that the state had wrongfully imprisoned four innocent men for sixteen years, that in doing so had allowed killers to go free, and that a slew of brutal murders came as a result of the state’s actions – left hope among many in the community that the state would respond to the grave allegation swiftly.

The first indication that the State of Alaska did not intend to act with a sense of urgency came a few hours BEFORE the filing, when Police Chief Laren Zager indicated to reporters for KTUU Channel 2 Anchorage that the filing was not credible and would not gain traction, BEFORE having read the filing or seeing the evidence it contained. This concerningly early statement was an early indicator of how the powers that be were likely to respond. These early remarks were uninformed and dismissive. Supporters remained hopeful that the future official response would show more awareness of the gravity of the issues at hand and take a more informed position.

Just over a week after the filing, with 37 days remaining until the state’s response to the Innocence Project would be due, the State of Alaska issued a press release  through the Department of Law regarding the post conviction relief filing.

“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 State said in its press release. They went on to reassure the public that they were confident the right people were in jail, and that they would soon begin an “independent review” of the case themselves.

The press release was met with disgust by supporters of the Fairbanks Four, who found the statements attacking the credibility of Tanana Chiefs Conference, Alaska Federation of Natives, and the Alaska Innocence Project disheartening. But the content of the release that drew the most criticism was the promise of an “independent review.” The offer for an “independent” review was misleading, since the State of Alaska investigating itself is of course not an independent investigation, but an internal investigation. The complete dismissal of the independent review that had taken place was also poorly received.

The National Innocence Project entered into the Fairbanks Four case as neutral third party tasked with completing an independent investigation of the convictions of the four men. As with any other case that the legal nonprofit decides to complete a thorough investigation and review of, the Innocence Project enters the situation as a completely neutral party well qualified to review the prosecutions in a case, the original investigative materials, evidence used to obtain convictions, and any pertinent new information. When the State issued their press release they failed to acknowledge that the one and only independent investigation ever launched in the Fairbanks Four case had already been completed, and its findings filed in the form of an application for post conviction relief claiming complete innocence, thereby verifying that the Fairbanks Four had been wrongfully convicted.

The tone of the press release was once again uninformed and dismissive. The press release further indicated that the State intended to take longer than the allotted 45 days, and restated the continued confidence the State had in its original convictions. 

In an email to Alaska Dispatch in response to the State press release, Executive Director of the Alaska Innocence Project Bill Oberly said the state’s tone was disappointing. “We hope the negative tone of their press release is not indicative of their approach to this case.”

In response to the tone and content of the State response supporters of the Fairbanks Four and concerned Alaskans flooded the Governor’s office with letters asking for Governor Parnell to expedite the review. The governor’s office was sent over 4,000 signatures on a petition asking for clemency or the timely review of the allegations of corruption and wrongful conviction in the case. The Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest organization of its type in the Alaska, unanimously passed a resolution  on October 27, 2013 asking the State to review the new evidence in the filing immediately. Crowds of hundreds of protesters gathered at at least four separate events to protest the continued wrongful imprisonment of the Fairbanks Four and urge the state to act swiftly in the case.

ImageFour days after hundreds of protesters gathered to demand an expedited response from the State that was in line with the seriousness of the situation, the state announced that with only eight days remaining in their 45 day response time, they had just begun looking at the case. They further indicated that it would take them “many months” to review the convictions, and that not until they were finished reviewing their OWN investigation and materials they have had in hand for the past sixteen years, that they would begin to look at the new information on the case. (READ ARTICLE HERE)

Supporters are calling for interference from the Federal Bureau of Investigations to investigate the original investigation, the allegations of corruption and institutionalized racism, evidence fabrication, and public corruption that have long flanked the Fairbanks Four case. They are also seeking allies from national and international justice organizations to call for an open and efficient investigation of the case, and an investigation of the state officials, police, and prosecutors involved in all stages of investigating and litigating the case, from 1997 to present.

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We deserve better than leaders who are uninformed.

We deserve better than a justice system that is dismissive,

We deserve to live in a community where transparency is valued.

We deserve to live in an Alaska where there truly is JUSTICE FOR ALL.

We hope that the State investigation is full of integrity, is appropriately swift, and is as independent as an internal investigation can be.

To those who seek to further justice by impartial and ethical practice, we will always support you, and fear not, the light is coming.

To those who still seek to stand in the way of justice – THE LIGHT IS COMING.

 

 

The Light Is Coming

BillFilingWhen the Reverend Scott Fisher prayed with the crowd gathered in front of the Fairbanks Courthouse on the day the Alaska Innocence Project filed their court motion claiming the innocence of the Fairbanks Four, the hundreds gathered under a cold and gray sky fell silent and listened. It was that strange kind of silence – the absence of noise where sound should be. It was as if we all just knew that this prayer should be alone in the air, its path upward completely clear, the words free to travel unaccompanied into the heavens.

Just a few hours ago, it was night. Yet, the sun rose. Morning came. The light made its way over the horizon, and now we stand in the light. For sixteen years we have waited. For sixteen long years these young men in prison have waited, in darkness, with only faith that light would come. We call upon the soul of this young man John Hartman, who was taken by darkness, and promise him, morning is on its way. We remember that with only faith in the darkness we stood, we prayed, we waited for the light.

The preacher’s voice was soft. This was a lamentation, a laying down of grief. This was the painful recollection of so many prayers said and left unanswered. Yet in the long pause that followed these heavy words, hundreds of heads remained bowed. Everyone knew this prayer was not over. When he resumed it was in a voice of power, a proclamation.

But now, there is light on the horizon. We can see it, we feel it, and we know the light is coming. To those of you who have waited, with only your faith, who have feared and gone forward, who have fought for justice in a dark, dark world, let me assure you: THE LIGHT IS COMING. To those young men in their prison cells, fear not: THE LIGHT IS COMING. To those of you who have hidden in the darkness, kept yourself and your secrets there: THE LIGHT IS COMING. And it is time. Step into the light. Seek the light. Because it is seeking you, and soon there will be no dark place left to hide. We have walked through darkness these many miles and we have many miles left to travel, but there on the horizon we can see a glimpse of morning and we know THE LIGHT IS COMING.

courthousecrowdIt is hard to say when the clouds parted and the sun shone down on those people holding hands, heads bowed. But when we looked up, it was a blue-sky day. The summer found its way into the autumn, the sun touched everything, and the looming gray marble of the courthouse faded into the background, insignificant amongst the brilliant red and gold leaves on the trees and the blinding white sun shining off of the river. The clock tower and church bells rang out at once in a strange and serendipitous orchestra, and people broke out into song.

Nuchalawoyya

Nuchalawoyya

The song was Nuchalawoyya, a song many hundreds and maybe thousands of years old, from the people and the place on the river that these wrongfully imprisoned men dream of returning to. A word that means in literal translation, where two rivers meet. But, as many words, loses meaning in a simple translation. The word is a place where rivers meet, a place where people from many places met. A place where, long ago, people discussed things like treaties and territories. A place of common ground, a destination, and now, a celebration. A song.

The song began with a small circle of four men. The men who were singing were boys once. Just kids in 1997. Theirs were the first voices to ring out that day, a powerful song from this small circle of four men. All of them were interrogated in this case. Each of these men, in their mid-thirties now, have carried with them these many years a burden we rarely discuss – the shame that came with this case. The shame of feeling and believing that if they had been stronger and louder; that if their voices had somehow been heard that their friends would not have been taken. They have walked with the guilt of survivors, never knowing why it was they were not taken. They have understood the grief of Eugene and George, who buckled under pressure and have had to live with the shame and the belief that if they had been stronger perhaps they would be free, their friends would be free, they would be there as men should be, at home to care for their families, and now, that perhaps the next victims of the men who killed Hartman would be alive and home as well. These men have carried with them a thousand shades of shame, the pain unique to those who spoke the truth and were not heard.

The list of names of the men who were given this shame as boys and who have carried the weight of it through the years grows shorter with the passage of time. Beside them in that circle was the space where others should have been. People who are gone now. Many of the young people who were interrogated, questioned, who testified in those dark years, who lived through a time when they spoke as strongly as they knew how and were not heard, have been buried. Some have died at their own hand. Yet, as these remaining men broke into song you could see some of the burden – a burden which will never leave completely – lighten.

This time they were heard, and their voices were joined by many others.

For far too long a time this case has been about darkness. This injustice has thrived in shadows and fed itself on secrets. Injustice draws strength from the evils of humanity – shame, fear, trickery, corruption, pride, denial.

That time is over.

For those of you who have information in this case, step into the light. The sun is on the horizon, morning is on its way, and if you don’t seek the light, it will find you. The light is coming.

For those who have walked with a heavy heart, who still carry the shame and grief and fear and pain, set it down. Let that darkness go. The light is coming.

 

 

 

 

 

*photo of Nuchalawoyya above is by “FairbanksMike” whose lovely pictures can be seen on Flickr