On the first day legislators were due back in Juneau for a special session, 20 protesters and one lawmaker brought the Fairbanks Four case to the Capitol.
It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and about 20 people are staggered along the steps leading into the state Capitol building. With their hands raised and four fingers pointed up, the protesters turn to face each pedestrian and car that passes in front of them.
Franklin Harvey James Jr. has a sign with a message: It’s not too late to exonerate.
“None of us believe that the case was handled right up there,” he said. “There’s too much left open. And it was handled too quickly … to appease the public, I would say.”
The Fairbanks Four were young men when they were arrested and charged with the shocking and apparently random murder of a 15-year-old boy named John Hartman. He was found severely beaten in the streets of Fairbanks in October 1997, and later died from his injuries.
According to a 2008 investigative reporting series by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the police investigators’ murder theory formed around a drunk teenager’s arrest on a different call that night. Over the course of about 11 hours in custody, Fairbanks police used coercive but legal interrogation methods on Eugene Vent, then 17. He confessed to the beating and identified three friends who also participated, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Marvin Roberts. Later, Vent recanted.
In three trials, three separate juries in Anchorage convicted the Fairbanks Four in 1999, despite lacking motive, eyewitnesses to the actual beating and physical evidence connecting the suspects and the victim. Three of the men are Athabascan and Kevin Pease is Crow Indian; the victim was white. The swift arrests and questionable case has fueled belief that racial prejudice was a factor.
“Well, it’s just an example of inequality. It’s not right,” said Capitol protest organizer David Russell-Jensen. “And I think a lot of people are joining the movement, Free the Fairbanks Four.”
Russell-Jensen is a liberal arts student with an emphasis in Native studies at the University of Alaska Southeast.
“Alaska Natives make up 15 percent of the population but are 36 percent of the prisoners in the state. And it’s just unfortunate. It’s completely harmed their lives,” he said.
Rep. David Guttenberg, a Democrat from Fairbanks, didn’t know about the protest, but addressed the Fairbanks Four on the floor of the House of Representatives.
“I don’t know whether they’re guilty or innocent, but I know everybody in this state wants to see justice done. Not only justice for those four people and their family, but also justice for the family of Mr. Hartman, the young man that died that night,” Guttenberg said.
His colleagues on the floor didn’t have an overt reaction to the speech. Afterward, Guttenberg elaborated on his position.
“There was always something wrong about it with me,” he said. “I thought the issue needed to be elevated a little bit higher into the state. And the opening day of this special session, to say something about it, I thought was appropriate. It was an important social issue and criminal justice issue.”
The Alaska Innocence Project is representing two members of the Fairbanks Four, seeking their exoneration based in part on new evidence. Eugene Vent is represented by the Office of Public Advocacy. George Frese is represented by Anchorage attorney Bob Bundy. The state maintains its prosecutors’ case against the Fairbanks Four.
Editor’s note: The Fairbanks Four’s legal representation has been clarified. An earlier version of this story suggested the Alaska Innocence Project represented all four.