Four indigenous men convicted of killing a teenager in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1997 were freed by a judge under an agreement they reached with the state on Thursday.
The men, known as the Fairbanks Four, were convicted in 1999 in the killing of 15-year-old John Hartman. The teenager was found severely beaten on a curb in Fairbanks on Oct. 11, 1997. He died the following night.
Police arrested George Frese, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent, and Marvin Roberts and charged them with having killed Hartman–since being convicted, the four have maintained their innocence. In the years since their conviction, some of the methods used by police to elicit confessions and evidence presented by the prosecution at trial have been brought into question.
One of the issues, according to the Alaska Innocence Project, is that the original case was partially built on the testimony of one possibly unreliable witness. The Christian Science Monitor writes:
The Alaska Innocence Project had long advocated for the four men, forming a case based on the recollections of a Fairbanks man who is now in a California prison on murder charges. They maintain that the recollections of William Holmes Sr., who was a senior at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks in 1997, were not clear enough to correctly identify the Fairbanks Four as the perpetrators of the crime.
The decision does not mean that they have been exonerated; their convictions have been vacated, on the grounds that the original evidence would not be sufficient to convict them if they had been on trial this year, and that new evidence might have emerged.
"The agreement reached today says that (the convictions) were properly obtained, and that nothing was done improperly either by the Fairbanks Police Department, by the lead detective, Aaron Ring, by any prosecutor that worked on the case," Department of Law Criminal Division Director John Skidmore told the Alaska Dispatch News. "Instead, what has been revealed is that there is new evidence submitted that suggests if they were tried again today, it would be more difficult to convict them."
As part of the deal, the men have agreed to drop a civil case against the state for prosecutorial misconduct and they won't be able to seek reparations from the state for the 18 years they spent in prison. The state, on its part, has agreed not to seek any re-trials against the men.
For indigenous communities (three of the four men are Alaska Native and the fourth is Native American) and particularly for Alaska Native communities, the case has been a widely publicized example of how they feel the legal system is geared against them.
The Alaska News-Miner published a detailed investigation about the case in 2008. One Alaska Native chief, Don Honea, summed up how some in Alaska feel about the case: "Those boys were railroaded," he told the newspaper. Many Alaska Natives feel "they don't have a chance if they go against the white system," he said.
In Fairbanks, the four men were greeted last night by a celebration at the David Salmon Tribal Hall. "It's time for us the be the kind of men everyone expects us to be," one of the men, George Frese, told KTUU.
“It’s six years of work and 18 years of lost opportunity for the boys,” Attorney Bill Oberly of the Alaska Innocence Project told the Alaska Dispatch News. “It’s what we set out to do six years ago. I just wish there was more I could do for the boys.”
Alaska Governor Bill Walker, who had considered issuing pardons for the four, tweeted in support of the men's release after the judge's decision yesterday:
Hartman's brother, Chris Kelly, testified at the hearing and said he believes the men are guilty of killing his brother. "I can't believe it," he said. "I feel like my family is completely wronged."