FAIRBANKS — It seemed like the whole courtroom held its breath when George Frese took the stand in a lawsuit seeking to prove his innocence and that of three other men imprisoned for the killing of a Fairbanks teen in 1997,
Frese, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent and Marvin Roberts were all convicted in 1999 of the murder of 15-year-old John Hartman in three trials that have come under question because of the police work, including allegations of coercion and threats to key witnesses.
Frese appeared in the courtroom in the morning dressed in a
mustard-yellow jumpsuit with “PRISONER” written in faded block letters across his shoulders.
But during the break he was given the opportunity to change and took the stand dressed in a while shirt and khakis, although his hands were still cuffed to his waist.
Frese, along with Vent, both gave confessions in the days following the assault on Hartman, who was attacked near 9th Avenue and Barnette Street.
“I was scared,” Frese said of his interviews with Fairbanks Police Detective Aaron Ring.
He said he began to confess to whatever Ring wanted to hear.
“Why were you scared?” asked his attorney, Bob Bundy, who is part of the team representing the four convicted men.
“Because,” said Frese, pausing, as the last bit of air in the room seemed to be sucked up before being released both by Frese and some in the courtroom as a sob of frustration and anger.
“They said that I did all this (expletive) that I didn’t (expletive) do,” he said, tears welling in his eyes and cries attempting to choke off his words. “You (expletive) know we’re innocent. I’m (expletive) positive as (expletive).
“OK,” interjected Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle. “Let’s take a break.”
“I didn’t (expletive) do this (expletive),” Frese cried as Lyle left the courtroom.
People hugged and wiped their eyes with tissues while Frese turned to the wall, attempting to collect himself.
After a few moments Frese stood up, a resolute expression on his face, and left the room with an escort of guards.
Outside the courtroom, people gathered with a more somber mood than earlier in the day when they heard of a demonstration of support for the four at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage.
The men have come to be known by many as the Fairbanks Four, their convictions a rallying cry against what they see as institutional racism they believe has long been a part of law enforcement and the legal system in Alaska.
When everyone returned to the benches in the courtroom and the door to the holding cell opened and Frese returned to the witness stand, nearly everyone in the courtroom silently held up their hands, holding up four fingers in solidarity with the Fairbanks Four.
People were driven to tears once again.
Lyle, however, said he will not tolerate demonstrations in the courtroom and said further displays would get the demonstrators removed from the courtroom for the day.
“This is not a theater,” he said to the audience. “It is a courtroom. Solemn civic responsibilities are being outlined here and are being performed here. You will not interfere.”
A patchwork memory
Frese said he had been drinking to the point of blackouts, leaving him with just a handful of fleeting yet distinct memories of the night of Oct. 10, 1997.
He played a drinking game called Up and Down the River with his friends. He remembers looking at the clock — it said 1:30 a.m. — when he left the house to go downtown with his friends. He remembers being chased from the Elbow Room for being underage.
He remembers getting a ride from a friend to the Midtown Apartments — a mile from his apartment — and he remembers his foot started to hurt while he was walking the rest of the way home.
What he can’t remember is how he hurt his foot.
The following day, as the previous night’s hard drinking wore off, the details came into clearer focus.
Frese said he thought he had broken his foot and went to the hospital with his girlfriend to have it looked at.
There, he told the nurses he thought he hurt it in a fight.
The details of the Hartman attack, which included a vicious stomping, had begun to spread. The dying Hartman was being treated in the same hospital.
The nurses registered the details and connected the dots, and soon Frese was a target of Ring, the police detective.
The gaps in his memory were readily filled in by Ring, he said during testimony on Thursday.
“I tried to minimize my involvement on whatever they were trying to put on me,” he said. “Everything that I claimed I did (in the confession) was offered up.”
Frese admitted that he may have been in a fight but maintains he couldn’t have been involved in the Hartman attack or another assault he and the Fairbanks Four are accused or perpetrating that night because of the time he remembers leaving his apartment.
It’s believed that Hartman was attacked between 1 a.m. and 1:30 a.m.
Alaska Assistant Attorney General Adrienne Bachman attempted to ask Frese if he was a member of the Native Brotherhood, a prison gang that she believes has pressured key witness Arlo Olson into disavowing his testimony.
The question was objected to by Bundy. He said Olson never specifically said anyone had pressured him into changing his testimony, only that he’s been the target of attacks for being considered a snitch.
Lyle asked Bachman if she had any evidence.
Bachman said she has witnesses who can prove groups have been tracking Olson in order to harass him in prison.
“The evidence will show the Fairbanks Four are responsible for intimidation,” she said.
But when Lyle asked if the witness would link Frese, Pease, Vent or Roberts to the intimidation, she said she couldn’t, yet.
Lyle ruled that Bachman won’t be allowed to ask about membership of the Native Brotherhood until a connection can be shown.
The cross examination of Frese is expected to resume today. The trial is expected to run through at least Oct. 30.
In addition to Frese’s continued testimony today, the plaintiffs plan on bringing in an expert witness on tread patterns as well as begin the testimony of Pease in the afternoon.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.