Prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant, in cooperation with lead detective Aaron Ring, was without question the driving force behind the conviction of the Fairbanks Four. They pursued the conviction with a strange zealotry that to this day remains hard to understand.
By the time the cases went to trial it is impossible to conceive that the two men driving the court action could have possibly believed that the Fairbanks Four were guilty. In fact, they fabricated court exhibits, coached testimony they knew to be false, and attempted to intimidate defense witnesses, threatening them with arrest if they testified. They do not appear in this story as men who believed incorrectly that the four young men were guilty. They do not come across as men making a mistake – in reality it is clear that their actions were deliberate and calculated. And someday, we hope they are imprisoned for the crimes they committed.
Jeff O’Bryant was the man who tried and convicted George Frese, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent, and Marvin Roberts. He went to trial with very little evidence of any kind, a few jailhouse snitches in his pocket, one fabricated exhibit presented as scientific, and absolutely no physical evidence. In addition to the lack of evidence indicating the men were guilty, there was a tremendous amount of alibi testimony indicating that the men were innocent. To convict the Fairbanks Four, O’Bryant knew he would have to convict the alibis, the witnesses, and in reality, all Native people. He had the ideal stage. Overt, extreme racism against the Native people of Alaska is the norm in the northern state. Persuading an all-white jury that being guilty of being Native was guilty enough was not as difficult as we hope it will be someday. So, Jeff O’Bryant argued that the alibi witnesses in the Fairbanks Four case should be ignored because they were simply Indians sticking together the way Indians do, a la “Spartacus.”
Fortunately for ol’ Jeff, the jury must have met the demographic of people who have seen the movie Spartacus. In order to fully understand the reference we did some research into the Spartacus mythology, and the pop culture “I Am Spartacus” moment that Jeff O’Bryant compared Native people to. And, wow, Jeff. He got it all wrong. He really misunderstood Spartacus. And he really misunderstood Native people. He really misunderstood a lot of things, and the jury misunderstood with him. But at the end of the day, he may be right about the Spartacus-Fairbanks Four Supporter connection.
The mythology of Spartacus has taken many forms, and made its way into American pop culture in the 1960 movie “Spartacus” starring Kirk Douglas. According to that account, Spartacus was born into a corrupt Roman empire, where the poor were regularly enslaved as soldier in a never-ending series of wars. Spartacus was born a soldier in that world, but eventually refused to fight and escaped. He was hunted down and arrested, then turned over as a slave in a labor camp. While enslaved there, Spartacus led a small band of other slaves to freedom with a brazen escape plan. Shortly after escaping, the enemy army located Spartacus and his fellow slaves in a camp. They fought off the soldiers sent to recapture them, and went on to free many more slaves and win many battles. At its height, his army born from a slave uprising is said to have reached over 100,000 men. As the leader of the most notable uprising of the lower class against the government in the history of the Roman empire, Spartacus was most-wanted man in the ancient world and there was a huge price on his head. When the Roman army eventually circled around and outnumbered the escaped slaves they made the recaptured soldiers a simple offer: all of the slaves would be pardoned. They would not be killed, but would remain slaves. All of their lives would be spared so long as they handed over Spartacus. If they failed to hand over Spartacus, they would all be crucified.
Spartacus heard the offer while they all sat surrounded and stood up. To spare the lives of his friends and fellow warriors, he said “I am Spartacus.” But one after another, more slaves stood up and proclaimed “I am Spartacus.”
The rebel army that stood behind Spartacus met a bloody fate. Most were killed that day in 73 BC and in the days that followed. 6,000 escaped followers of Spartacus were hunted down and crucified. The government lined the streets with their corpses as a warning to any other citizens considering rising up against the empire. Yet, the men died free, and the rebellion has inspired humanity ever since.
The story of Spartacus is told as a story of loyalty. Bravery. Of the perseverance of the human spirit and the ability to defeat enormous enemies in the face of oppression if not logistically, then spiritually.
With that in mind, it is a strange and poignant irony that Prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant chose this story as the metaphor for the Fairbanks Four alibis and witnesses. O’Bryant argued, apparently persuasively, that the witnesses were all somehow simultaneously fabricating their testimony in an effort to protect other Natives. Slaves. Unruly slaves were what came to mind when O’Bryant wanted to undermine an entire race of people. According to the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer, O’Bryant told this version of the Spartacus story in closing arguments:
“It reminded me,” he told jurors, “of the movie where the Romans have a bunch of prisoners, slaves, and there’s an uprising amongst the slaves because of the conditions. And the leader of the uprising, apparently, was Spartacus.”
When the Romans came looking for Spartacus, O’Bryant observed, “much like the witnesses here” slaves stepped forward declaring “I am Spartacus,” one after another.
When the jury announced a guilty verdict, Kevin Pease turned to Jeff O’Bryant and said, “How does it feel to convict an innocent man, Jeff?”
How did it feel, Mr. O’Bryant?
In 1997 there was no army. There was no conspiracy, there was no massive decision by dozens upon dozens of Native people to lie for the benefit of other Native people. There were only people, telling the truth in a court of law, where they were dismissed at face value because of their ethnicity. Kids. Living out a role they were born into. They hadn’t had that moment yet. That moment when you realize some kinds of discrimination are bigger than the individual. Those kids walked into the courtroom believing justice was blind, and they walked out with their eyes wide open.
But today, there is an army. There are thousands of people willing to stand behind these wrongfully convicted men and say, if you take one innocent person you take us all. To say no, we will not quietly allow you to take a few people in exchange for a life where we are complicit in our own continued enslavement. Thank you for pointing us to this inspiring bit of history. But remember, never take heavy words for granted. Never forget words have a power all their own, that once they leave your mouth there is always the risk that they will be truly heard. Cause guess what, Jeff? Can you hear them now? They’re saying, I am Spartacus. We are all Spartacus.