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State orders independent review of '97 murder, Fairbanks Four convictions

Casey Grove

The Alaska Department of Law has ordered an independent review of new information in a recent court filing challenging the convictions of four men in the fatal beating of John Hartman, a Fairbanks teenager found dead on a street corner in October 1997.

Favoring the Fairbanks Police Department’s theory that the men engaged in a random street robbery and stomped the 15-year-old to death, jurors in three separate trials convicted the men, now known as the Fairbanks Four: George Frese, 36; Marvin Roberts, 35; Kevin Pease, 35; and Eugene Vent, 33. They have maintained their innocence in prison ever since, first serving time in Arizona, Colorado and now back in Alaska.

A court filing by the Alaska Innocence Project in late September, 16 years after the murder, revealed what the Fairbanks Four’s supporters say is new information: Another man, William Holmes, said in a sworn affidavit that he and another group of Fairbanks high schoolers killed Hartman. Holmes, 33, is serving life in prison for killing two people in California, a cocaine-connected crime committed after escaping punishment for the Hartman murder, Holmes wrote.

In a written statement Thursday, the Department of Law said Alaska State Troopers will conduct the probe.

“Although there has never been any credible or serious allegation about the integrity of the investigation, or the prosecution, which led to these convictions, the department will conduct an independent review,” the statement says.

The Department of Law statement pointed out that the Fairbanks Four have all appealed their convictions and lost, and that the Alaska Supreme Court has declined to take up the case.

“The Department of Law remains confident that all four convictions were properly obtained based upon the evidence presented at the trials,” the statement says. “Notwithstanding, doubts have been expressed in the community where these crimes occurred, and the department believes a review of this new information is warranted.”

Findings from the trooper review, with the cooperation of the Fairbanks Police Department and the Fairbanks District Attorney, will go to the state Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals. The process will take more than the 45 days the state has to respond, according to the Department of Law, and state attorneys will seek to extend the deadline.

“These things can go on a long time,” said Bill Oberly, executive director of the Alaska Innocence Project. “Sometimes they get addressed right away, sometimes it’s longer.”

In an email, Oberly said the state's tone in the Department of Law statement was disappointing.

"We hope the negative tone of their press release is not indicative of their approach to this case. We
are all interested in seeing justice done," Oberly wrote.

In an interview prior to the press release -- which said the Department of Law would not comment further -- Criminal Division Director John Skidmore said the review could take months. It will include an attempt to verify the accuracy of facts presented in the Innocence Project filing and examine legal questions raised in the filing.

“That all takes time,” Skidmore said. “We want to assure people that it’s been appropriately looked at.”

The state attorneys “wouldn’t be doing our job to make sure people have confidence in the system” if they did not investigate the claims in the new filing, Skidmore said.

Contact Casey Grove at casey(at)alaskadispatch.com