FAIRBANKS — The settlement that released four men who had spent 18 years in prison for a murder they said they didn’t commit was unprecedented in Alaska, but just what lessons will be learned from the case is unclear.
Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent maintained their innocence throughout their nearly two decades behind bars, claiming investigative and prosecutorial misconduct were responsible for their convictions of killing John Hartman in 1997.
Much of a five-week civil trial this fall centered on building a case that police and prosecutors were hell-bent on convicting the men. The four claimed the police forced false confessions, coached witnesses and ignored evidence that may have helped prove their innocence.
But the state, as part of the settlement, admitted no wrongdoing.
In fact, the settlement and public comments from officials like Attorney General Craig Richards and John Skidmore, the director of the criminal division of the state’s Department of Law, make it clear the state stands by the original convictions.
“The parties have agreed that original convictions were rightfully and fairly obtained, valid and proper,” Richards said on Thursday, after the settlement became official. “There was no wrongdoing by the prosecution, by law enforcement or by witnesses in the original case.”
The settlement even allows the state to retry the four men if “substantial new evidence of guilt is discovered.”
Cindy Strout, the president of the Alaska Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, found the state’s position disappointing. She said there’s plenty to learn from the case that could lead to meaningful changes for investigations and prosecutions.
“One would hope, but given the statements from Mr. Skidmore that doesn’t give you a lot of reason to believe that,” she said. “If their stance is, ‘We did nothing wrong and nothing about this was improper,’ then that’s hard to see as encouraging that they’ve learned anything from this.”
Strout, who has 30 years of experience as a criminal defense attorney and served as an expert witness in one of Vent’s trials, said the Fairbanks Four convictions have many of the hallmarks of a poorly handled case.
She pointed in particular to the eye witness identification made by Arlo Olson of the four men assaulting another person outside a wedding reception. The lead prosecutor on the case said Olson’s testimony was the key piece of evidence in a narrative that the Fairbanks Four were on a violent spree that ended with the fatal beating of Hartman on a downtown street corner.
Experts on eye witness identification told the juries it was impossible for Olson to make a positive identification of anyone at the distance, especially at night. In the post conviction relief trial, Olson said he had been coached into giving his testimony.
“For way too long the system has relied on eyewitness identification and just assume they’re reliable when most of the social studies on eye witness identifications say they’re not,” Strout said. “There’s a psychological appeal of the witness on the witness stand pointing at the guy and saying, ‘I’ll never forget that face,’ when the science shows that’s not true.”
Jurors said as much in interviews with the News-Miner after the convictions, with one praising Olson’s bravery in taking the stand.
Innocence Project Executive Director Bill Oberly said he hopes the state makes changes to avoid wrongful convictions in the future.
“The things that lead to wrongful convictions are really nationwide,” he said. “There are issues that are being dealt with by Legislatures in other states, reformation of how identifications are done, lineups and that kind of stuff. Legislation about how jailhouse snitches are handled. These are issue that are also current to Alaska.”
The settlement itself doesn’t set legal precedent, so it’s unlikely to have much of an impact on future legal proceedings, but Oberly said it will play a role in future innocence efforts.
“It is not precedent-setting because there was no decision, it was a settlement. You can’t cite it,” he said, “but in further contact with the state about cases where we claim innocence, we will certainly refer to this case.”
He also said it will send a message to other people who may be wrongfully convicted.
“For other innocent people in prison, it means that if you’re innocent and in prison and we can find evidence that establishes that you may get out and your convictions may be vacated,” he said.
Looking to the Legislature, which is scheduled to gavel in next month, there’s currently no legislation aimed specifically at preventing wrongful convictions.
In 2012, there was a bill authored by former Anchorage Sen. Hollis French that would have required law enforcement agencies to adopt standardized practices for taking eye witness testimony, like noting weather conditions and other obstacles, and conducting police lineups.
Oberly, the former president of the Alaska Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Alaska Public Defenders Office testified in support of the bill.
Rep. Matt Claman, an Anchorage Democrat with a background in both criminal defense and prosecution, said there are certainly issues with memory and eye witness testimony, but was hesitant to say there should be a rush to pass new legislation.
“If you compare that with other states, the fact that we’ve gone over 50 years and have had only one case of actual innocence, that means our criminal justice system is working better than most states,” he said.
Strout said that may be the case, but the Fairbanks Four case should be a wake-up call.
“Alaska is not immune to these kinds of things happening, the false confessions, the overreaching by police, the putting on the blinders problem,” she said. “We’re not immune to that and this case clearly proved that.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.