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.”

kevin drivers license

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,

Eugene and grandma annie

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.

george and grandchildren

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.

marvinandhazelatrelease

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.”

hazel with sign.jpg

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.”

 

EugeneQuote

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Day 12 – FBI Agent Attacks FPD Methods and Eugene Vent Under Cross Examination

October 21, 2015

Gregg McCary took the stand on the twelfth day of proceedings in the Fairbanks Four bid for exoneration and testified that the original police interrogations were deeply flawed. McCary is a former FBI agent, who was with the burea from 1969-1995. While with the FBI McCary worked as a criminal profiler and was a contributing author to the FBI’s primary manual – Crime Classification Manual. McCary’s resume is lengthy and he is considered on of the country’s leading experts in criminal profiling and false confessions. The petitioner’s attorneys pointed to McCary’s testimony to argue that the statements of Frese and Vent, the cornerstone of the convictions, were classic false admissions produced after flawed and unethical interrogation. McCary attacked the original police interrogations from nearly every angle, asserting that the tactics employed in the investigation were so troubled that the flawed outcome was predictable.

“They didn’t hunt for any other suspects,” McCary said, “They limited the universe of suspects to these four individuals and never went beyond that.”

McCary focused heavily on the flaws in, and overemphasis upon, the interrogations conducted by Fairbanks Police. He noted that Eugene Vent and George Frese were both in a suggestible state with suggestible personality attributes, and reiterated that the aggressive interrogation style know to lead to false results was essentially the bulk of the investigation.

“The investigators here substituted an interrogation for an investigation,” McCary said.

McCary noted that the interrogations were based false-evidence ploys, and that the interrogations were conducted with intoxicated and sleep deprived subjects. Throughout his testimony he essentially listed the known factors in false confession, explained them, and identified how every single one of them impacted this case.

Prosecutor Ali Rahoi  on behalf of the state objected to the admission of the testimony on the grounds that McCary (the guy who literally wrote the book) was not a qualified expert, that behavioral criminology is not a real profession. So….we cannot really mock that. It kind of does the job itself.

EugeneVentCourtEugene Vent took the stand for his extended cross-examination by special prosecutor Adrienne Bachman. Ironically, after a morning of testimony by a renowned expert in the field that aggressive false evidence based questioning is not effective, Ms. Bachman essentially took that approach in her cross-examination of Vent. Bachman stacked compound leading questions on screaming accusations on disjointed lines of questioning.

Vent maintained a calm demeanor, even as questioning escalated to a level some observes found so unbearable they left the room, one describing it as the most horrific bullying she had ever seen.

Vent seemed less rattled by the behavior than most others in the courtroom. Here are few highlights from his interrogation  cross-examination:

  • Bachman accused Vent of being too drunk to remember whether or not he was scared during interrogation based on his blood alcohol test, yet maintains he was sober enough for interrogation.
  • State introduced some notes that Eugene Vent passed to a girlfriend while he was a sophomore in high school. In once, Vent said of his weeked that he and his “boyz” got “smoked out and loced out.” Bachman insisted that the “boyz” referred to were his codefendants and that “smoked out and loc’ed out” means to smoke marijuana and carry a gun. Bachman has tried her hand at gangsta slang quite a few times during the proceedings and the results are mortifying to watch. Like one of those moms who shops in the junior’s section and says “OMG” too much. Vent clarified that loc’ed out does not mean to carry a gun. Eugene’s writings were a trip down 90’s-slang memory lane. For those of you who missed the decade, “loced out” was a term derived from the Spanish word “loco” and was used essentially to mean….well chilled out? Stoned? Super stoned? Maybe crazy? We don’t know. We didn’t really know then, either, we were pretty far away from the rap scene that proliferated the expression but it was a cool thing to say in a time when we were trying really hard to be cool, and so we used it, almost always associated with getting stoned. And it definitely had no relationship to guns of any kind. Through introduction of this evidence the state reminded us all of a time when people didn’t have text so they wrote notes, and when people got “blazed” and this line of questioning would be called “bunk” and we could give “mad props” to anyone who kept a straight face through that, and of a time long past where apparently Eugene wrote some super dorky notes. Make that hella dorky.
  • Bachman established that while Eugene Vent was being interrogated in 1997 he burped without saying excuse me. The audio introduced reflects that Eugene is likely guilty of the crime of burping without saying “excuse me” in 1997, but we feel that eighteen years of hard time may be a tad overboard for the crime of mediocre manners in a seventeen year old drunk boy.
  • Bachman hammered Vent on his poor manners. “I wasn’t being respectful,” Vent answered, then referring to Detective Aaron Ring, “Neither of us were being respectful.”
  • Bachman also established through a gotcha-vibed series of questions that Eugene Vent had gum in the night in question. “And you left that gum at murder scene at 9th and Barnette, didn’t you?” she said. In a serious anti-climax, Vent replied that no, the gum was collected from him at the police station, and logged in his property report.

The cross-examination was not funny. Human lives are at stake here. If this wasn’t so horribly, tragically, relentlessly tragic, it might be funny. At the least it is a parody of itself because the conduct of the state attorneys is just so painfully ridiculous. What is becoming evident is that these tactics are probably effective on juries (a scary thought) but play poorly to rooms filled with professionals.

Back in court – Opening Arguments and Witnesses in Fairbanks Four Hearings

MArvininCourtOctober 5, 2015 marked the first day of proceedings in the evidentiary hearing the Fairbanks Four, their attorneys, and supporters hope will ultimately lead to their exoneration.

Inside the courtroom, Marvin Roberts was flanked by attorneys, his traditional beaded moosehide vest among the black suit jackets underscoring his singularity in the courtroom. His three – sat a few miles away at Fairbanks Correctional Center, where the State had been ordered to transport them. The court was, however, unable to force the State to transport them under guard the few remaining miles to the courthouse each day when the State refused. Equally alone, and every bit as tasked with the burden of representing those who could not be there in person, was Chris “Sean” Kelly, the elder brother of victim John Hartman.

Nearly eighteen years have passed since the last time this case was in court, and the years have altered many in the crowd. Accused man Marvin Roberts, the only one of the four to achieve parole, and Hartman’s brother Sean Kelly are middle-aged men now. Hazel Roberts, mother to Marvin, has gray streaking her hair now, and is on the doorstep of 60. The last time she sat behind her son proclaiming his innocence she was nearly the age he is today. Hartman’s mother is long deceased. Also present at court was George Frese’s daughter with her daughter on her lap. Today, she is twenty years old, and her daughter is three. In 1997 she was a three-year old on her mother’s lap and her father George was twenty. The years calculated in their alteration of the human beings involved are painfully visible. The rows of spectators listened carefully as the case began. Immediately prior to proceedings, journalist Brian O’Donoghue, whose investigative reporting first revealed the many issues with the original convictions to the public, was unceremoniously ejected from the courtroom. State prosecutor Adrienne Bachman deposed both O’Donoghue and blogger April Monroe, making them witnesses to the case, in what many suspect was an effort to execute control over coverage of the proceedings. The crowd shook their heads as O’Donoghue rose and walked from the courtroom, unable to cover the story for the first time since its inception.

During opening statements attorneys for the men and the State of Alaska outlined their respective cases. The Fairbanks Four, as George Frese, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent, and Marvin Roberts have come to be known, are visibly well represented on this return trip to court. The eighteen years that have elapsed since their original conviction have virtually inverted the appearance of the courtroom – a reflection of the change in public sentiment about the case. The attorneys for the Fairbanks Four sat two tables deep, and opening statements were given in turn by the lead counsel for each of the men. The Fairbanks Four, their attorneys argued, are entirely innocent of the murder of John Hartman. In an opening bolstered by a series of video clips – William Holmes unemotionally confessing to the murder of Hartman in detail, his co-conspirator Jason Wallace implicated by both Holmes and his own statements cockily invoking his right against self-incrimination when asked about his role in the killing, and former star witness Arlo Olson recanting his original testimony – attorneys for the Fairbanks Four argued passionately that their clients were absolutely innocent, as they themselves have insisted since the first day of incarceration and maintained these many years.

Adrienne Bachman argued for the State of Alaska that jury trial is the “bedrock of the justice system,” that the judge had no business being a super-juror in the case, and went on to say she would call witnesses who bolstered the original case, including a cab driver who came forward in 2014 to claim she saw four “Asian-looking men” in the Barnette area the night of the murder, and “felt a catch in her heart.” She outlined a basic argument for countering the admissibility of anything she deemed hearsay, communicated her intention to stand by the boot print exhibit created by controversial figures Jeff O’Bryant and Aaron Ring, and exhibit repeatedly described as misleading and totally unscientific by experts, reiterated that alibi witnesses should not be called because if “they were not believable the first time, they are not believable now.” Bachman also revisited the testimony of Melanie Durham, a women’s shelter resident in 1997 whose testimony about hearing the Hartman beating has long been used as a reference for the time of the crime. Durham came forward when she realized the beating she heard had resulted in a death, claiming to have heard “dark” voices and a smaller voice plead for help. After the Fairbanks Four were arrested and she had a conversation with officer Aaron Ring, accused by supporters of significant misconduct in the case, Durham altered her story to be that although she was not close enough to hear audible words, and she saw nothing, that she was still able to identify the voices as Native due to an accent (as an aside – none of the Fairbanks Four have a “Native” accent, all are verified city boys). Durham’s  illogical but racially charged testimony was effective the first time, and Bachman argued that Durham did not hear a black man, despite Holmes’ having a classic “African-American speech pattern.” It was an interesting addition to the theory that witnesses can distinguish Natives in the dark distance by indistinguishable speech – the State expressed their stance that this is also true of African Americans.

In the end, both sides argued what is to be expected – the attorneys for the Fairbanks Four argued based on fact and witness testimony that their clients are actually innocent of the crime for which they have spent the last 18 years in prison, and Adrienne Bachman argued that she did not want to be there and did not think it was fair that her opponents were presenting this information in court. Oh, also that her witness has the superpower of identifying people by ethnicity without seeing them, and that she has a witness who may have seen four Asians in 1997, because that is close enough, right? In all reality, it is dismaying to say the least to hear bigotry presented as fact in 2015 as in 1997.

Opening arguments were followed immediately by the in-person testimony of one of the most critical and controversial witnesses in the current case – William “Bill” Holmes. The crowd sat in absolute silence as Holmes, in horn rim glasses, orange prison garb, and flanked by troopers, described with apparent ease his role in John Hartman’s death. He discussed attending a high school part at classmate Regent Epperson’s house, and leaving when it was “boring.” He described the plans to assault Natives, repeatedly referring to the Alaskan indigenous as “drunk Natives” as he relayed the series of attempted assaults that culminated in the fatal assault of Hartman. He described the other teenagers running back to the car, near hysteria because “little J was just trippin,’ stompin’ the old boy out.” He describes discovering a few days later that the assault proved fatal, that others had been arrested for the crime, Wallace showing off and laughing at Hartman’s blood still on his shoes, and how Holmes threatened the other teenagers present with murder should they ever come forward.

When describing his motivation, Holmes insisted that God had moved him, nothing more and nothing less.

William Holmes TestimonyHolmes proved a difficult witness to undermine for Bachman, who focused heavily on his ability to identify his route through arial photographs and his definition of “U-turn.” The line of questioning ultimately backfired as Holmes described by landmark with great accuracy the corner of 9th and Barnette. Bachman also sought to undermine Holmes’ claim of faith by grilling him about sexual conversations had via contraband cellphone with a woman. Bachman insisted Holmes could not be both coming forward for spiritual religions and ‘talking dirty’ to a woman. She ended her cross examination with a brief commentary about his testimony being hearsay, prodding Holmes with the claim that he didn’t see anything or commit a crime. Holmes responded that he thought driving the car for premeditated assaults, driving the getaway car for a murder, threatening witness/participants with death if they came forward, and destroying evidence was indeed a crime. In the end, Holmes had the better end of that argument.

Most memorable in the Holmes testimony, however, was simply the easy demeanor with which Holmes reflected on Wallace “stomping the ol’ boy out.” For the many people whose lives were turned upside down when Marvin, Eugene, Kevin, and George were imprisoned for the killing, hearing the details of the brutal death of young Hartman for the first time were overwhelming.

FairbanksFourrallySpectators exited the courtroom visibly shaken by the Holmes testimony, and as Marvin Roberts and TCC President Victor Joseph stepped into the large crowd gathered to protest outside the courtroom, the mood turned somber.

“We need to pray for John Hartman, for this little boy, and his brother who is here today. We need to lift him up,” Joseph began, and continued to urge the crowd to support the Four and continue their work.

Marvin thanked the crowd, tears catching in his throat as he listed his co-defendants still in jail by name.

The crowd of supporters, which included the UAF chancellor and bishop of the Alaska Episcopal church, played drum and sang traditional songs in a circle around the courthouse steps.

“Two years ago,” Father Scott Fisher said in closing prayers, “we gathered in this same place, with faith, and insisted, the light is coming. Today, it is sunrise.”
Below are some of the many articles and videos about the first day of the Fairbanks Four proceedings. We will update you as trial continues.

KTUU – Fairbanks Four Hearing Begins (article/video)

KTVF – First Day of Trial

Indian Country Today ‘Fairbanks Four’ Seek Truth, Freedom

NPR – Dan Bross – Bill Holmes Testimony

Washington Times – Fairbanks Four Want Convictions Overturned

Big Bad Wolf III – The Police Killing of Henry Kettendorf

badcop In 1994 the words “viral post” would have meant nothing. There was no status update, no like or share buttons, and to the common Interior resident, no internet. It was in this era that the Golden Heart City saw the height of city and police corruption and lived with violence against Native people by the police force as a social norm.

Activism and advocacy journalism in this time was not for the faint of heart. Gene George, then a resident of North Pole, Alaska, ran a small publication Athabascan Reports. He was known for reporting on controversial topics. Today we are posting Volume 5, Issue #1 of Athabascan Report titled “Fairbanks Cops Out of Control.” This issue contains a transcript of a conversation between two city police officers following the killing of Henry Kettendorf.

Kettendorf, a 32 year old Native male, was wanted on burglary charges out of Anchorage. He was unarmed and killed by a single shot through his heart fired by Officer Aaron Ring. Civilian witness accounts differed from the police report. Troopers investigated the shooting and concluded it was justified, although they also “declined to release their findings” according to a February 13, 1995 article in the Sitka Sentenial.

A coroner’s inquest was eventually held, and Officer Aaron Ring was represented by none other than former Fairbanks District Attorney Bill Murphy, who went on to represent Eugene Vent through a trial which ended in his wrongful conviction. If this constitutes a conflict of interest it was never disclosed. The death of Henry Kettendorf all but disappeared into obscurity after the coroner’s inquest found in favor of Officer Aaron Ring and FPD and has remained a topic of conversation largely through the efforts of a determined and controversial local activist.

Athabascan Reports published articles on this Kettendorf killing, but none were so controversial as the report below. In this issue, Gene George published the full transcript of a conversation between two FPD officers in which they berate the female reporter from the Daily Newsminer for publishing an unflattering article, calling her a cunt and bitch among other gender-specific slurs. They go on to make light of the shooting of Kettendorf, joking that they would not have tried to save him, but said “die, motherfucker” to him as he bled out. The two officers also discuss retaliation on the witness.

By this account, the last sight Henry Kettendorf saw while he was alive was Aaron Ring’s face, after Kettendorf cried out, “you shot me!” Officer Ring apparently answered, “Yep.” The men in the transcript think this is hilarious.

It is not fair nor logical for us to weigh in on whether the shooting of Kettendorf was justified. It appears that it was not – he was an unarmed man in a well-lit parking lot. But without complete information, which has proved difficult to find, we will withhold a conclusion. But the death of Henry Kettendorf certainly took place inside an unacceptable police culture. The fact that officers would speak about a person this way, talk of retaliation through inappropriate use of police power against witnesses, and that the climate in general was so destructive dispatchers felt the need to secretly record and expose officers, and that when they did, the tapes provided to the City Council and Mayor simply went missing, exposes a lot about the power structure in Fairbanks in the 1990’s. The events which led to the wrongful conviction of the Fairbanks Four took place on this same stage with all the same players. Rumor has it that shortly after this leak the dispatchers were fired and replace by the wives of Aaron Ring and Jim Geier.

Inside this climate people like Gene George reported these events when that was so much harder than it is today. We owe a debt to people like him.

Below, his work speaks for itself.

Athabascanreport1

Athabascanreport2

athabascanreport3

athabascanreport4

Appeals Court Reveals Second Murder Confession in Hartman Murder

In a ruling made public today, the Alaska Appellate Court has shot down the efforts of inmate Jason Wallace to keep his confession to the murder of John Hartman out of court.

Although the exact statements of Jason Wallace related to his participation in the 1997 murder for which the Fairbanks Four were convicted and remain incarcerated have yet to be revealed to the public, the ruling confirms that Jason Wallace made statements to “an investigator working for his attorney which, if true, would tend to exculpate four defendants who were previously convicted of the same crime that J.W. described.” Wallace, currently incarcerated for another murder and represented by Fairbanks attorney Jason Gazewood who was most recently in the news after being held in contempt of court, has fought the release of his confession since the Alaska Innocence Project entered them under seal as part of a Post Conviction Relief filing based on actual innocence on behalf of the Fairbanks Four. Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, and George Frese were arrested and convicted of the Hartman murder in October of 1997. the four young men were convicted despite a wealth of alibi evidence and with no physical evidence of any kind linking them to the victim or each other.

Jason Wallace has been fingered as an alternate suspect in the Hartman killing since at least 2004, but a substantial statement related to his involvement proved elusive. Finally, in a sworn affidavit to the Alaska Innocence Project dated in 2008, high school acquaintance of Wallace Scott Davison detailed the statements about the killing Wallace had made to him just days after the murder. Davison was absolutely bullied and berated by the State of Alaska for coming forward.

According to oral arguments made during a recent misconduct hearing on the case, in 2011 William Holmes, a Fairbanks man serving a double life sentence in a California prison for unrelated murders, developed a relationship with correctional officer and chaplain Joseph Torquato. Holmes told Torquato about his life in Alaska and his troubled past. On December 5th, 2011 Holmes detailed to Torquato his role in the stomping murder of a young boy for which four innocent men were imprisoned. Torquato was so compelled by the statements of William Holmes that he went home the same night and used the internet to research similar murders in Alaska. He came upon the Hartman case, and the next day when he saw Holmes he asked him, “Does the name Hartman mean anything to you?” to which Holmes replied, “Do you mean John Hartman?” The inmate confirmed that the murder he had confessed to the previous day was indeed the Hartman murder. Torquato implored Holmes to come forward to Fairbanks authorities, but he refused.

The correctional officer then took the information to his supervisor and together the two composed what is now referred to in proceedings as the “Torquato Memo.” Torquato sent the written account of the confession by Holmes to the Fairbanks Police department. They forwarded it to the District Attorney’s office. Ultimately, neither party took action.

The State’s failure to disclose the confession of Holmes when first received was the subject of the July 30th hearing in Fairbanks Superior Court, where the state argued that the wording of the Code of Ethics as written in 2011 should have allowed the prosecutor to withhold the confession, although they conceded that such conduct would not be acceptable in 2014. They further argued that because the Fairbanks Four had been convicted by 2011 that they did not have any remaining constitutional due process rights.

Counsel for the Fairbanks Four argued that there were indeed state and federal constitutional rights violated through the withholding of the Holmes confession, and that the ethical obligation to disclose the confession was so clear that it was “offensive to justice” to have withheld it. Attorneys for the Fairbanks Four discussed the harm that had come to the four men’s case as a result of the State’s decision to hide the Holmes confession. Among other things, they cited the 2014 deaths of two witnesses who had heard confessions from Marquez Pennington. Had the State revealed the confession as obligated, the argued, the witnesses may have been alive to testify that Marquez Pennington made admissions in the case as well. This small comment was the first reference to yet a third confession – the confession of Marquez Pennington. 

A decision as to whether the actions of the District Attorney violated the rights of the men known as the Fairbanks Four is forthcoming from Judge Paul Lyle.

Despite the State decision to withhold the confession, it eventually came out. Holmes confessed directly to the Alaska Innocence Project. In 2012, Holmes mailed a detailed and handwritten confession to his role in the killing of John Hartman in which he named Jason Holmes, Marquez Pennington, Shelmar Johnson, and Rashan Brown. The five teenagers, according to Holmes, went out that night hoping to assault “drunk Natives” for fun, and after being unable to find the ideal victim happened upon John Hartman. According to Holmes Jason Wallace was the ringleader of the vicious assault, but all four of the other men he named attacked and killed Hartman, while Holmes served as driver. (Read the Holmes confession HERE). IMG_7092

The Holmes confession provided answers long-sought by the Fairbanks Four and their families and friends who for nearly two decades have insisted on their innocence. It also corroborated the affidavit of Scott Davison, and became the centerpiece of the 2013 Alaska Innocence Project filing for Post Conviction Relief on behalf of the men. Also contained in the filing were statements made by Jason Wallace said to “corroborate the confession of William Holmes.”

The statements by Wallace, potentially subject to attorney-client privilege, were filed under seal and it was never known if they would be made public. Jason Wallace can, and likely will, appeal the decision to release his confession to the Alaska Supreme Court, although it seems unlikely that they would opt to hear the case. The decision by the Court of Appeals only applies to the narrow issue of whether or not the judge CAN consider it for admission. It is still possible that Judge Lyle will not declare it admissible. It is possible that he may admit it and keep it confidential.

This wins a battle, but the war is long.

story1Whatever the legal meanderings of this case through the maze of a truly sick justice system, we have as much faith today as we did when we wrote our first post. The first time anyone ever used the term “Fairbanks Four” we used it with this promise beside it  –  “This is story of injustice, a plea for help, for understanding, and above all a story of faith in the power of stories, of the truth. Writing this blog is an act of faith, a testimony to the power of the truth, spoken, read. We may not be experts in journalism, in law, or many other things. But the contributors here come from Alaska, from a culture that has a long tradition of storytelling, and a belief that the truth holds incredible power. This is a long story, and we will have to tell it the old way, the slow way, in pieces as they come.”

This story is unfolding as we knew it would and know it will because we have known the ending since the beginning. This blog is still a story, told in pieces as they come. Today, this is a new piece of a long story. This movement is still a plea for help. We need you to share this story and do what you can to right a wrong.

Above all, it is still an act of faith and we have absolute faith in the good of people like you and the power of the truth.

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.

 

True Murderer Comes Forward – A Letter from William Holmes

story1We have a long tradition of letting people tell their own story.

Today, the Innocence Project walked into the courthouse and filed a motion for Post Conviction Release on behalf of George Frese, Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts, and Kevin Pease. These men have maintained their innocence for almost sixteen years, and today definitive evidence of their innocence has been made public.

This court motion contained a lot of information – testimony by experts that George’s boot did NOT match the wounds on the victim, proof that Arlo Olson lied, proof that it would be scientifically impossible for someone to have seen what he claimed. But, the most important thing it contained, in our view, is a story. A handwritten confession, by a man named William Z. Holmes who confesses in detail the murder of John Hartman.

We have said many times that we believe people can feel the truth, see it, sense it, recognize it. And that is why we believe so strongly in the power of truth told by those who hold it. We believe the best we can do to help any injustice is to make a space where people can tell their truth. There will be plenty of articles, news, updates, and headlines about this case today, we will let them fill their purpose, and fill ours.

With that in mind, below is the handwritten confession of William Z. Homes. We will let that stand alone for today. You can judge for yourselves if it is the truth. We believe it is.

We believe in redemption. That anyone can do all they are able to change themselves during their time upon this Earth and that no matter how dark or low a place life takes us to that we can still seek light. So, we publish this with a great sadness for the heartbreaking manner in which John Hartman died, but also a hope for the individuals who did kill him, and every single one of those who helped to hide the truth and further lies, that they may use this time to come forward and begin what must be a very long journey toward redemption.

This day could have never come without the faith, hope, and hard work of many, and we thank you all. Our journey to justice is far from over, but today we begin a walk down a new road.

This is a sad story. Listen, listen.

Image

photo (1)

photo (2)