Four Native men in Alaska – George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent – were convicted of the 1997 beating death of a Fairbanks teen. A former Fairbanks man, William Z. Holmes, serving a life sentence for another murder in California, has written and signed a sworn affidavit stating that he and some friends – not the so-called Fairbanks Four – committed the crime.
Supporters of the Fairbanks Four say Holmes’ sworn affidavit, obtained by the Alaska Innocence Project and accompanied by corroborating evidence, backs up what they’ve known all along: That the four were wrongly convicted, despite testimony that backs up their alibis; incriminating testimony from one witness that was recanted; and no fingerprints or DNA evidence that connect them to the crime.
The arduous task of reviewing the case – which could result in the Fairbanks Four’s release – is in the hands of Adrienne P. Bachman, a one-time state Prosecutor of the Year who was also honored by the Alaska Native Justice Center for her prosecution of a serial rapist.
Bachman graduated from UCLA in 1977 and University of Southern California Law School in 1980. She moved to Alaska in 1980. She worked in a private law firm until 1986 when she joined the Anchorage District Attorney’s Office. In 2007, she was appointed Anchorage district attorney. In 2013, she joined the state Office of Special Prosecutions.
“I believe in justice for all and I believe in the law,” she said of the Fairbanks Four convictions. “I will work hard to assure as many interested people as I can that a just result will occur in this case, whether it means affirming the convictions or exoneration for one or more of these men.”
Bachman recently discussed some of the issues surrounding the review with Indian Country Today Media Network.
What are the challenges of reviewing the convictions and the new evidence in the Fairbanks Four case?
In order to respond to the petition, the state has to be in a position to understand the evidence that supported the original convictions. Thirty-six jurors assessed the evidence and found these men guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest legal standard in our system of justice. Understandably, a later court cannot set aside such verdicts without substantial, verifiable evidence.
There are very specific legal standards that must be met. Those standards will be discussed in legal pleadings that will be filed in the coming months. Alaska courts have not yet had the reason or opportunity to precisely define how its courts must treat a petition like the one filed in the Hartman murder case.
In general, there are three stages to a petition for post-conviction relief. They are well-defined in the law. The stages are the pleading stage, during which the petitioners must plead a so-called “prima facie” case for relief. The state must respond with either an answer or a motion that postpones the requirement to answer the petition. Those motions are often motions to dismiss the petition for deficiencies identified by the law.
The second stage is the discovery stage, during which the parties ask lots of questions of the other side and take sworn statements (depositions) of as many people as we can identify with critical information. The final stage is the hearing, at which each side presents evidence to the judge who will decide the matter.
All of the arguments currently made in the petition were made during the original trial, except the Holmes affidavit. Only the Holmes allegations are new. The petition characterizes the original evidence, but a review of the actual trial testimony shows that there were many additional pieces of evidence that are never mentioned by either the petition or the newspaper articles that seem to form the basis for much of the pubic opinion that lingers about this case. Examples include the various admissions or confessions made by three of the four. Interestingly, though, portions of their statements were withheld from the criminal jury trials pursuant to court rulings; those same portions are available to the court in this civil case because different rules apply.
William Z. Holmes confessed to being involved in the murder of John Hartman. Is his confession enough for the Fairbanks Four to be released? What must be done for his confession to be accepted as fact?
As you know, the review and investigation of the allegations made by Holmes is under way. I cannot comment beyond those comments made in the public documents filed to date.
The state is committed to conducting a prompt, thorough and thoughtful investigation of the Holmes allegations. It is a top priority. Hundreds of documents – tens of thousands of pages – and hundreds of pieces of evidence will be reviewed and all necessary witnesses will be contacted.
In light of the new evidence, why must previous information in the case be reexamined before the Fairbanks Four are released?
Verdicts are not overturned unless and until a court is satisfied that the legal grounds for post-conviction relief are valid and meet the high standard of clear and convincing evidence. As [Alaska Innocence Project director Bill] Oberly remarked during his press event when he filed the petitions, “This is not a short street, but a long road.” He is correct.
This case has been tried, appealed, the subject of previous petitions for post-conviction relief. There have been prior alibi witnesses and other suspects investigated. Those prior events took years to resolve and did not undermine the validity of the verdicts. Unless a verdict is overturned, the judgment of the court is valid and must be enforced.
Tell us about the process of this review: What is the purpose of the status hearing in December, will you interview Holmes and the others named in his confession, when do you expect to complete your review?
The [deadline extension] request was for May, but we will work to file earlier if at all possible.
I cannot share with you the precise manner in which the state will review and investigate these allegations. First, the ethical rules that govern prosecutor conduct limit our ability to disclose any matter that is not a matter of public record. Second, we are not permitted to disclose to the media or general public material that is likely to have an impact on the decision maker.
Another way of describing our limits is that we are not entitled to try our case in the so-called court of public opinion. Under the circumstances, that is hard. This case will continue to garner lots of public scrutiny. What I can assure you is, as time goes on, the results of the process will become clearer and be available to the public, precisely because we are doing as thorough a job as possible to review and investigate everything.
Supporters say the Fairbanks Four were convicted despite testimony that backs up their alibis; incriminating testimony that is questionable and, at one point, was recanted; and no fingerprints or DNA evidence that connect them to the crime. District Attorney Jeff O’Bryant told the jury, “Simply put, if Arlo [Olson] didn’t see what he saw, and you throw out some of the state’s evidence, the state doesn’t have a case.” If your review results in the convictions being overturned, might other changes be spurred by your review?
The last question is this series asks me to speculate about matters that are utterly premature. We must first conduct our review and investigation. Second, your quote is a very limited recitation from the Pease/Roberts trial – that likely comes from the reporting of Brian O’Donoghue, yes? – not the trials of either George Frese or Eugene Vent, both of whom confessed to their own involvement in the beating of [John Hartman].
As for the substantive questions, it is clear that all four were convicted by 12-person juries. That means 12 people agreed to the guilty verdict. No one on the jury thought there was a reasonable doubt about their guilt based on all of the evidence presented at trial. I am reading all of the trial transcripts and cataloging the many, many pieces of evidence that supported – or were offered up by the defense attorneys – regarding those verdicts in order to even begin to understand the impact of the Holmes allegations.
Our job now is to understand and appreciate all the evidence that led those citizens to those conclusions. Then we must evaluate the new allegations in light of the evidence that was presented and was so convincing. If this information had been brought forward before trial we would have investigated it then. It was not, so we must investigate it now.
There was lots of other evidence against even Pease and Roberts and, combined, that evidence met the highest burden of the proof in the United States – proof beyond a reasonable doubt. No one takes that more seriously than a prosecutor.
Fairbanks police used the Reid method of questioning in interviewing George Frese and Eugene Vent, who initially confessed but later recanted. Critics of the Reid method claim it too easily produces false confessions, especially with children. In Canada, a Provincial Court judge ruled in 2012 that the Reid method is “a guilt-presumptive, confrontational, psychologically manipulative procedure whose purpose is to extract a confession.” Your thoughts on the use of this technique?
The interviews of both men were fair and above board. The police did not supply the details of the beating, Mr. Vent did. He named his co-defendants as involved in the beating, not the police. As a further example, Eugene Vent told the police that he’d given [John Hartman] some gum. Since the police had not mentioned chewing gum, but did find a small pack at the scene, Mr. Vent’s own words told the world that he had been there – no matter how much he now attempts to back away from those statements.
Likewise, the circumstances of George Frese’s confession started with him seeking medical attention for what he described as a broken foot, caused by him kicking or stomping someone “downtown.” The police did not supply those words, Frese did. There was no “Reid Technique” aspect to those very incriminating statements.
(Reporter’s note: Asked if DNA or fingerprint evidence proved the pack of gum belonged to Vent, Bachman told ICTMN, “There was no testimony at the trial about DNA or fingerprint evidence on the gum.” A seven-part series in the Fairbanks News-Miner, the product of a six-year investigation by O’Donoghue and his journalism students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, observed that, among other things: Lab tests yielded no supporting evidence linking the Fairbanks Four to Hartman’s murder. Detectives referred to fictitious evidence throughout the interrogations that yielded confessions from Frese and Vent, a practice which today “draws specific cautions in the nation’s standard-setting criminal interrogation manual.” Jurors remained unaware that state crime lab experts couldn’t match Frese’s boots with photos of Hartman’s bruises. The state’s case strongly relied upon identifications made by an eyewitness standing 550 feet from another crime that occurred that night. “The distance raises the possibility of witness misidentification, which has emerged as the leading common denominator among hundreds of errant murder and rape convictions,” the News-Miner reported in the series.)
Considering the circumstances of the Fairbanks Four convictions – that the credibility of Alaska Native witnesses was questioned during trial, and that Alaska Natives make up 16 percent of the state’s population but comprise 37 percent of the state’s inmate population – how would you convince Alaska Natives that Alaska’s justice system is fair and equitable?
This case seems to have polarized many factions in Alaska and that is a sad legacy. I can do my best to assure anyone who reads your articles that I am aware of the need to be culturally sensitive and legally rigorous. We will try to answer all the questions we can identify throughout our review – not just those raised by the strict letter of the petition filed by [the Alaska Innocence Project).