CLARIFICATION: Begich is calling for a federal review of the convictions, not a new investigation.


FAIRBANKS - U.S. Senator Mark Begich has asked the federal government to review the convictions of four men jailed since 1997 for a Fairbanks murder.

In a letter sent last week and announced in a news release Wednesday morning, Begich asked for a "formal Civil Rights Division" review of the four men convicted of killing Fairbanks teenager John Hartman.

"Allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and coercion, along with evidence uncovered in recent years ... have cast serious doubt on the original convictions," Begich said in the letter to outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Hartman, 15, was found badly beaten with fatal wounds at the corner of 9th Avenue and Barnette. George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent were convicted in three different jury trials and given sentences of between 33 and 79 years. Their advocates call the group the "Fairbanks Four."

Begich spokeswoman Heather Handyside clarified Wednesday that Begich's request is limited to reviewing existing documents in the case. Begich has not asked the justice department to search for new facts in the case.

"An investigation would be actively looking for new information. This is just a review of the existing record," she said. "When there is a formal request for review the DOJ Civil Rights Division will pull the entire court record and will evaluate the (legal) process and how the process was applied. They'll evaluate it based on compliance with law, regulation and constitutional standards to insure that the process was free of bias based on things like race, economic status and ethnicity."

Three of the four are Alaska Natives. Critics of the convictions accuse the court system of racial bias. Begich's letter follows calls for a federal investigation from the regional Alaska Native consortium Tanana Chiefs Conference and last year the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives.

It also follows an alternate theory of Hartman's death announced by the Fairbanks Four's supporters last year. In October 2013, the Anchorage-based nonprofit Alaska Innocence Project filed a written statement from former Fairbanks resident William Z. Holmes who said four of his Lathrop High School classmates, not the Fairbanks Four, beat Hartman to death. Holmes is serving a double life sentence in a California prison for an unrelated murder.

Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.