This story was first published in the Daily News-Miner on July 6, 2008

CONTENT WARNING: This series contains references to vulgar language and violent acts that may be objectionable to some readers and that parents may find inappropriate for their children.

Editor's note: This series is the product of a six-year investigation by former Daily News-Miner reporter Brian O'Donoghue and his journalism students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, with support from the News-Miner.

Part one of seven.

FAIRBANKS—The victim's waist straddled Ninth Avenue's curb. His head rested on the pavement.

"Look, look," cried the front passenger of the approaching Cutlass that Saturday, 0ct. 11, 1997.

The time was about 2:45 a.m.

"There's a little boy."

Drawing closer, the driver noticed puffs of breath rising in the early morning chill. The youngster looked bruised and battered but alive.

The woman who first spied him began getting out. Friends stopped her; what if those responsible were still around?

The group roared off seeking help.

John Hartman, then just weeks past his 15th birthday, would linger in a coma at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital until his death the following evening.

Police swiftly arrested four suspects. Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, George Frese and Kevin Pease stood trial and were convicted in 1999. They are serving prison sentences ranging from 33 to 79 years for the teenager's slaying.

A decade after Hartman's murder, Alaska courts still wrestle with the case. The Alaska Supreme Court has agreed to review Pease's conviction. This week, a lower court is scheduled to hear Vent's claims of new evidence.

Procedural issues dominate these ongoing court reviews.

It's the larger questions about the integrity of the system that trouble Athabaskans tied by family and heritage to three of the convicted men.

"We call forth and challenge the legal community and the institutions to revisit this case," said Jerry Isaac, president of Tanana Chiefs Conference, speaking this March at a rally supporting the men convicted of Hartman's murder. The chief executive of the Interior's largest Native nonprofit corporation criticized the prosecution's use of "questionable evidence."

Don Honea, ceremonial chief of more than 40 Interior villages, is characteristically blunt about the message he and others see delivered in the Hartman verdicts. "Those boys were railroaded," he said, adding that Natives feel "they don't have a chance if they go against the white system."

Fairbanks Police Chief Dan Hoffman counters by noting that Pease, who isn't Alaska Native, received what amounts to a life sentence. "That defendant was treated no better, or no worse," the chief said last spring.

For his part, chief prosecutor Jeff O'Bryant draws confidence from the collective nature of those verdicts, which stemmed from not one but a series of trials. "Thirty six different people, looking at all the evidence — three different times," O'Bryant said in an interview several years ago. "Basically, arguably, coming to the same general conclusion."

This seven-part series offers no proof of guilt or innocence. It does document gaps in the police investigation that raise questions about the victim's last conscious hours. It points out that the group convicted of the teen's murder may have been prosecuted with forms of evidence identified later in national studies as contributing to some wrongful prosecutions elsewhere. And it shows how rulings from this state's courts have undermined Alaska Native confidence in the justice system by keeping juries from weighing all that's known about the crime.

Among the series' observations:

* The police investigation remained focused on suspects flagged through a pair of confessions, subsequently retracted, despite lab tests that yielded no supporting evidence.

* Jurors remained unaware that state crime lab experts couldn't match Frese's boots with photos of Hartman's bruises. Though it bore the lab's logo, the suggestive exhibit presented at trial was a non-scientific photo overlay assembled by police and the district attorney. Recent studies have shown that evidence lacking forensic merit often figures in convictions that are later overturned.

* Detectives referred to fictitious evidence throughout the interrogations that yielded confessions from Vent and Frese. Employing such trickery on suspects who profess no memory of a crime, while standard practice in 1997, today draws specific cautions in the nation's standard-setting criminal interrogation manual. The revisions reflect lessons learned from re-examining tactics used obtaining confessions later proven false in cases that sent innocent people to jail.

* The state's case strongly relied upon identifications made by an eyewitness standing 550 feet from a robbery. The distance raises the possibility of witness misidentification, which has emerged as the leading common denominator among hundreds of errant murder and rape convictions.

* Police paid scant attention to the last person known to have been with Hartman. Chris Stone, a 14-year-old self-described methamphetamine addict, had been hospitalized following a similar assault only weeks prior. And jurors never heard about Stone's attention-getting entrance into Carrs-Foodland about the time Hartman lay dying in the street. Also, no one involved in the Hartman case had access to Stone's sworn statement, sealed in an unrelated juvenile proceeding, suggesting, under one interpretation, awareness of his friend's plight.

All of this has contributed, in the eyes of many, to a decade of doubt.

Swift arrests, shaken spirits

Two days after Hartman's fatal beating at Ninth Avenue and Barnette Street, four current and former basketball players from Howard Luke Academy, a predominantly Alaska Native alternative high school since closed, faced murder charges. Bail was set at $1 million apiece for 20-year old Frese, 17-year-old Vent, and Pease and Roberts, both 19.

At a news conference that day, Fairbanks Police Lt. Paul Keller explained that detectives had statements from two of the young men acknowledging their own roles in Hartman's death and implicating the others. "After the physical assault, he was sexually assaulted," the detective said.

Police hadn't found ties between the suspects and the victim or determined any motive for the crime. Keller characterized the murder as an act of "random street violence."

Prior to the crime, locals drew a sense of security from the Interior's daunting winters and relative isolation. Savagery of this sort was more commonly associated with L.A., New York and other major population centers. Most perceived Fairbanks and its surrounding urban community of roughly 52,000 as fundamentally different, a special place united by shared hardships and rooted in a self-reliant frontier heritage.

Hartman's brutal murder downtown prompted civic leaders to convene a rare town meeting. "I'm not satisfied to live in a community where someone cannot walk down the street without getting assaulted or killed," then-borough Mayor Jim Sampson declared.

Local officials caught an earful.

"You're ruining the most beautiful place I've ever been to," said Southside resident Jada Humphrey, chastising authorities for not confronting violence sooner.

"God help you people if something happens to my daughter in this town... because you've done nothing."

Speaking on behalf of the police, Lt. James Welch asked for the larger community's help. "I'm not asking for people to be vigilantes," he said. "I'm asking for people to get together."

Native activist Shirley Demientieff challenged others to join community-policing efforts. She also announced plans for a candlelight walk, honoring all victims of violence. The route she proposed--starting at the hall where the suspects were among those attending a Native wedding reception and ending at the intersection where the white victim lay dying — aimed at diffusing racial tensions heightened by the crime.

Being Athabaskan, Roberts, Vent and Frese possessed family scattered up and down the Yukon River. That kindled regional interest in the Hartman case.

"What happened to 'innocent until proven guilty'?" wrote Carla K. Bonny, a non-Native resident of Tanana, in a letter published in the Daily News-Miner two weeks after the arrests. Like many others in her Yukon River village, she was sure there was more to the story. "Such violence sickens everyone I know in this village," she wrote. "But none of us know what happened that night, and won't know until evidence is presented at trial."

Others rendered swift judgment.

"As for Hartman's assailants," Jackie Dupree of Fairbanks wrote the editor that same week, "I say let the punishment fit the crime. This incident represents a good argument for the death penalty."

Opinions harden

Clad in orange jail suits and handcuffed to their waists by chains, the four suspects shuffled past TV cameras into the courtroom for arraignment on Oct. 21 1997. A defense attorney blasted the chains as "grandstanding" and "prejudicial," but they remained in place. The security stemmed from the "high-risk persons" involved, the officer heading the detail said, protecting against violence or escape attempts.

Three of the accused relied on public defenders. Roberts, too, came from a family of limited means, but friends and relatives in Tanana and Ruby rallied to his support. The villages raised $10,000 in a single weekend and retained Dick Madson, a local defense attorney best known for representing Exxon Valdez skipper Joe Hazelwood.

Legal battles raged through the winter of 1997, into summer, and though the following winter.

In February 1998, indictments were dismissed against three of the four suspects because the district attorney failed to inform grand jurors of potential alibis.

Only Roberts ever made bail. While that was short-lived, the prospect of accused murderers walking freely about town sparked more outrage.

"Well, Fairbanks, Alaska, looks like open season," wrote Mary Carter in a letter to the editor. "We are truly savages now. We can roam the streets raping and beating men, women, girls, boys — doesn't matter, whichever you prefer is fair game."

Describing herself as "embarrassed with Alaska's justice system," the Healy resident said it was "too bad" the victim couldn't have another 24 hours with his mom.

Comments of that sort offended supporters of the men accused.

"We aren't some Third World country where you can be locked up on a whim," fired back Fairbanks letter-writer Adrienne Grimes, a former classmate of the suspects. "Would you like to know what horrifies me? It's the judgmental way in which my fellow citizens are behaving."

The dismissals were still being processed when a grand jury charged Frese with another felony stemming from an incident two weeks prior to Hartman's murder. Several tourists said he had pulled a gun on them during a confrontation near the Westmark Hotel. His friend Pease provoked it, they said, by spewing vulgarities at women in the group. When one of the men in the group gave chase, Frese allegedly rolled up on a bicycle and pointed a pistol at the irate tourist's head.

At the time, police questioned others they picked up near the hotel but made no arrests. Three weeks later one of the Westmark tourists notified police he recognized Frese and Pease in news coverage of the murder case. Only Frese was charged.

In summer 1998, a pair of juries took turns with the Westmark case. The first trial ended when a juror locked himself in a bathroom rather than continue deliberating. The juror told the News-Miner he felt the tourists conspired against the murder suspect.

Tried a second time, Frese was found guilty and received two years in prison. "I look into your eyes and see a truly troubled young man," Judge Ralph Beistline observed during sentencing.

Frese offered no apology. "Just because I was convicted of this doesn't mean I did it," he said of the Westmark incident.

Meanwhile, preliminary arguments about the Hartman case reached the Alaska Supreme Court. Indictments were reinstated, a victory for the state. The defense, likewise, prevailed when courts suppressed portions of both confessions. Every development commanded headlines. Lacking fresh images, local broadcast updates inevitably featured aging file video of the Hartman suspects wearing those chains.

In November 1998, Superior Court Judge Niesje Steinkruger began selecting a jury for Frese's murder trial. He would be the first Hartman suspect prosecuted.

Ninety eight jurors were called; more than 40 were excused for possessing "substantial knowledge" about the case. By the fourth day, a jury and alternate were seated, but the judge remained doubtful.

Citing the possibility of "hidden prejudice," Steinkruger dismissed the panel and ordered the Frese trial moved to Anchorage, 350 miles south.

Changing venue to ensure fairness in a Fairbanks criminal proceeding hadn't been necessary in more than 20 years. The prosecutor protested, lamenting the expense associated with transporting and housing witnesses and court personnel so far away. But Steinkruger's ruling stood.

In February 1999, she presided as Frese was tried and convicted by an Anchorage jury.

Judge Ben Esch took the gavel for Vent's trial that July, followed by Roberts and Pease. All were found guilty by jurors from Alaska's largest city. All maintained their innocence at sentencing in February 2000.

"I'm a scapegoat for officers of the law," said Pease, who portrayed himself as wronged by the system.

Citing Pease's extensive and violent juvenile record, escalating from armed robbery at the age of 16, Judge Esch handed him 79 years. "It's a question of when the homicide was going to occur," he told Pease, "not if."

Mounting discontent

In May 2003, the state's three-member Court of Appeals convened for the first time ever in Fairbanks. The hearing concerned Roberts' application for another trial based on emerging information about Hartman's companion Stone and post-trial retractions from Arlo Olson, another prosecution witness.

Madson, all but officially retired, continued to represent the man he described as, perhaps, his only "absolutely, totally, 100 percent innocent client" in 40 years as a defense attorney.

By then, simmering anger over the Hartman verdicts found expression in sporadic protest marches and in annual resolutions from village and regional tribal groups, most notably Tanana Chiefs Conference, the nonprofit social service provider serving more than 40 Interior Alaska villages.

As early as 1999, the tribal council of Tanana took stands supporting hometown favorite Roberts. The council initially called for "unbiased justice" through a better police investigation. By 2001, hardening attitudes colored resolutions from village and regional Native organizations. "The racist attitude prevalent in Alaska's legal, judicial and public communities created a true conspiracy that has deprived these young men of their freedom...," stated TCC Resolution 2001-39, requesting a federal racism inquiry.

Mixing in the hallway after that 2003 appellate hearing, supporters of the Hartman defendants compared impressions, drawing hope, or despair, from the justices' vocal tones and facial expressions.

Native elder Honea, who had flown in from Ruby for the hearing, cut to the chase.

"Most of the people down there," he said, "they think that if it had been all white boys doing this — they would have got off."

Chief Hoffman, a patrol sergeant at the time of Hartman's murder, had little direct involvement in the investigation. While he declined to discuss specifics of a case he termed arguably "the most notorious in Fairbanks history," the chief acknowledged last spring that the murder and its aftermath pose challenges for a department striving to build confidence among the entire Fairbanks citizenry.

"The fact that three out of four of the defendants were Alaska Natives tended to generate a lot of questioning along those lines," he said.

Hoffman largely devoted his first year as chief to preparing for the influx of some 3,000 delegates to the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention, which was coming back to Fairbanks after a lengthy absence. And it paid off. Not a single report of "serious victimization" marred the delegates' weeklong gathering at the Carlson Center in 2005. The supportive local police presence contributed to the organization's return to Fairbanks in 2007.

Even as the chief personally extended a hand in 2005, the Hartman case intruded.

"These children are innocent," declared Demientieff, the Fairbanks Native activist, who was leading a lunch-hour protest outside the convention's main door. About two dozen picketers slowly circled her, parting the flow of delegates in and out of AFN's convention. Most carried hand-lettered signs. "Retrial: Yes!" proclaimed one. "Alaska Natives Standing Up for Justice," read another.

"We come from all walks of life and we believe in them," shouted Demientieff, referring to the group convicted in the Hartman case.

The chief, who was related to the late activist by marriage, paused to talk.

"Oh Dan," he recalled Demientieff saying, as she often did at such times. "This isn't directed at you."

Hoffman didn't take offense. He and Demientieff, who died in January 2007 of lung cancer, had their differences over the Hartman verdicts. But the pair weren't far apart concerning what's best for their town.

"How can I fault someone," he said last spring, "for wanting to stand up and say, 'Let's make sure we're all on an even footing here. Let's make sure justice is indeed done fair, straight, and across the board.'"

It isn't unusual for courts to take years digesting fundamental questions about evidence, interrogation practices and the reliability of witnesses, all of which are present in the Hartman case. The agitation outside the courtroom distinguishes this case. That can be traced to Roberts, whose character inspires faith among those who know him.

He owned the car police say was used in the crime.

It's also Roberts, alone among the defendants, who professes to have a time-referenced alibi.

That's the nugget many find hard to overlook.

• Tomorrow: "A cry in the night"

Brian O'Donoghue is a UAF assistant professor of journalism. Former students Sean Bledsoe, Rachel Dutil, Gary Moore and Nate Raymond contributed to this report.