On Thursday, Dec. 17, Superior Court judge Paul Lyle approved a deal vacating the convictions of four men in the 1997 murder of John Hartman. In return, the Fairbanks Four promised not to sue the city of Fairbanks or the state of Alaska over the investigation and prosecution that led to their convictions, which they have long disputed.
One of the four, Marvin Roberts, has been on parole since last summer. George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent were released from the Fairbanks Correctional Center last night, and met up with hundreds of supporters a short time later at the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall in Fairbanks.
There, just hours after the judge’s ruling, a potluck dinner of moose, salmon, spaghetti, fried chicken, salads, pies and much more had been assembled — plenty to feed the hundreds of people at the hall, who Tanana Chiefs Conference president Victor Joseph said were exuberant.
“They’re doing a little bit of eating, celebrating, just having a good time, a little bit of traditional dance, a lot of laughing, a little bit of crying and a lot of celebrating,” said Joseph.
April Monroe said she was 16 years old when she and some friends attended the same wedding the Fairbanks Four went to the night of the murder:
“So we knew they were innocent,” said Monroe. “We knew that, at random, four of us had just been taken.”
Monroe is author of the “Free the Fairbanks Four” blog, where she’s worked to keep the case alive. She was joined by several other individuals and organizations – including Bill Oberly of the Alaska Innocence Project, a non-profit that works for exoneration of those wrongfully convicted. Former Fairbanks News Miner reporter and current University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism professor Brian O’Donohue reported on the case then led student investigations into it. The Dorsey & Whitney law firm represented the men pro bono. Monroe also credits a strong grassroots effort with Thursday’s decision, which she hopes signals a new direction.
“Alaska has a very serious problem with consistent miscarriages of justice and systematic bias and systematic racism,” said Monroe. “And it’s something that as a state and as a people we need to address. The Fairbanks Four need to be the first of many people who find real justice inside our system.”
Victor Joseph said the long journey of the Fairbanks Four, who entered prison as teenagers 18 years ago, is not over.
“You just can’t come out on the streets with nothing and hope to be successful,” said Joseph. “We gotta make sure they are successful reentering our communities.”
Supporters have set up a Wells Fargo bank account for donations to help the Fairbanks Four, and a fundraiser is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Anchorage.