The first day of the 49th annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage featured hundreds of attendees yelling their support for four men who say they have wronged by the justice system. As the AFN crowd showed their support, one of the men, George Frese, was preparing to head back into court in Fairbanks.
The Fairbanks Four is Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease and George Friese. The men — three are Alaska Native and one is American Indian — were convicted for the 1997 murder of 15-year-old John Hartman but have maintained their innocence throughout their 18 years in prison.
Supporters sporadically yelled out “No more four!” throughout Gov. Bill Walker’s address to the convention. Just before Walker began to mention issues he felt the state hadn’t made enough progress on, about a dozen people entered the main room at the Dena’ina Center with a large cloth banner that read “Justice Fairbanks Four.”
After Walker’s address, AFN co-chair Ana Hoffman took to the podium and invited the organization’s board of directors to the stage. She motioned to Walker — who’d stepped back — to move toward the front of the stage.
“Gov. Walker, we have, on behalf of the board of directors and all of the delegation, we have a very important message for you,” Hoffman began. “Free the Fairbanks Four.”
Each member of the board of directors stretched their arm up into the air and displayed four fingers to represent the four men they believe are wrongly convicted. Most of the crowd followed the board’s lead. Chants of “No more four!” strengthened for a for a minute. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott stepped forward to join Walker.
As Hoffman continued to speak, Walker acknowledged the audience by nodding his head as he scanned the room.
“As you know Gov. Walker, the Fairbanks Four — Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease and George Frese — have spent the last 18 years in prison for a crime that they did not commit and they deserve to be exonerated,” she said. “With the utmost respect for you, governor, we ask you to make things right and just. We put our faith, hope and love in your wisdom.”
Hoffman invited co-chair Jerry Isaac, former president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, to take the podium to share a traditional song he’d composed for the demonstration.
“In our Native way, when death suddenly happens we are shocked, we are saddened and we grieve. In this case, there’s no physical death but the forceful taking away of freedom from four young men,” Isaac said. He continued: “We are shocked and saddened and grieving because the facts prove them innocent. The long years of shock and sorrow and the want for freedom and equality fill us with a grief. A grief that is so crippling by its power our only way to express our frustration, our sadness, is to grieve, grieve by a song to express our grief, sadness and sorrow.”
Afterward, Rob Sanderson, Jr. — the village chair for Southeast and 2nd vice president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska — told the crowd donations were being collected for the men’s legal expenses. The Alaska Innocence Project has been working to secure the men’s freedom for several years.
Victor Joseph, president and chairman of Tanana Chiefs Conference, spoke last before the board left the stage.
“It’s time that these young men come home,” Joseph said. “It could have been any of our children. I want everybody to know I place my trust in the governor to do the right thing and I believe he will. Thank you and ana basee’.”
In an interview with KSKA’s Zachariah Hughes, Walker said he admired the passion of the Fairbanks Four supporters and that he follows the case daily. He said, however, that anything he could do at this point would undermine efforts to have the men exonerated in a court of law.
“Whatever I would do in the way of releasing them from jail, they would still carry with them the question of (whether they’re guilty or not),” Walker said. “What they’re doing now is they’re having an opportunity to have their name cleared, assuming the evidence supports that.”