FAIRBANKS — The four men who spent 18 years behind bars for the murder of John Hartman are free, but there is no consensus on who actually killed the Fairbanks teenager in 1997.
A judge approved a settlement Thursday between the state of Alaska and the men known as the Fairbanks Four — George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent — that overturned their convictions and let Frese, Pease and Vent out of prison. Roberts had been out on parole since summertime.
The state has agreed not to retry the men unless they learn of “substantial” new evidence. The Fairbanks Four have agreed not to sue various governmental agencies.
After nearly two decades of doubt about their arrests and convictions, during which the men continued to profess their innocence, the settlement and their release came as an abrupt ending. It followed a five-week hearing in the Fairbanks Four’s petition for post-conviction relief, which had sought a declaration of innocence that could have taken up to eight months to resolve.
During the hearing, attorneys for the Fairbanks Four presented evidence that another group of men beat Hartman, including testimony from one of them saying as much and documents and testimony that another had confessed years earlier.
A special prosecutor for the state disputed that theory, and the state still says the Fairbanks Four were properly convicted.
According to the state, the deal struck Thursday stops short of exonerating the Fairbanks Four, and as state Attorney General Craig Richards put it in court Thursday, their convictions were “rightfully and fairly obtained.”
The state prosecutors and the Fairbanks investigators who pursued the convictions did no wrong, Richards said.
If there is to be further investigation of Hartman’s murder, that is up to local law enforcement, Richards said Thursday. In a written statement, Richards described the settlement as a “compromise” and said “the notion of justice is specific to each case.”
“In this case, I have determined that justice is best served by ending this litigation,” Richards said.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for the Department of Law declined to comment on whom the state believed was responsible for Hartman’s murder and said investigating the murder was not the department’s responsibility.
“We don’t have the power to investigate,” said Kaci Schroeder, the spokeswoman.
Unless any solid, new information comes to light, it appears there will be no additional investigation by the Fairbanks Police Department, which has jurisdiction in the Hartman murder.
Fairbanks Police Chief Randall Aragon said Friday the case remains closed.
“If anything ever pops up, any viable leads that would be workable that would lead us to believe someone else was involved, we would begin further investigation,” Aragon said. “At this point, we don’t have anybody else to look at as far as further investigation.”
Asked about the testimony and evidence in the post-conviction relief hearing that another group of men killed Hartman, Aragon said he supported the state prosecutor’s position that the other group were not “viable suspects.”
The state’s special prosecutor had introduced sufficient doubt about the alternate suspect theory using information gathered by Fairbanks police and two Alaska State Troopers leading up to the hearing, as well as questions the special prosecutor raised during the hearing, Aragon said.
“We questioned it, too. We aligned with the prosecution, me and my investigators,” Aragon said. “There were doubts that was credible. My staff has never felt, at any point, that they were traveling in the wrong direction.”
Aragon has been police chief for about a year, and the disputed convictions of the Fairbanks Four have lingered over the police department far longer than that, he said. Like Attorney General Richards, Aragon stressed the importance of finally starting “a healing process” for the Fairbanks community now that the settlement has gone through.
“Sometimes you just get to the point where it’s, ‘Let’s just resolve this.’ And I’m glad it’s been resolved,” Aragon said.
Alaska Innocence Project CEO Bill Oberly, who represented two of the Fairbanks Four in their fight for post-conviction relief, considers the men exonerated, even if the state does not.
Oberly said Friday the state and Fairbanks police are making a choice to not pursue the other group of men for Hartman’s murder. But Oberly said he did not know why.
“That’s ridiculous,” Oberly said when told the Fairbanks police did not consider the other men to be viable suspects.
“We know who did it,” he said. “A guy got up on the stand and confessed to it, and another guy told four other people he did it. And that’s not viable?”
Three of the five members of the group — Jason Wallace, William Holmes and Rashan Brown — are in prison for murders committed in the years following Hartman’s death. The whereabouts of the other two are unknown.
The question of whether Hartman’s murder will ever be resolved is one for the state, Oberly said.
“That’s not our job. That’s their job,” Oberly said.
There is still the issue of paying for or fighting a judgment of $6.2 million against the Fairbanks Four, who were sued, along with other entities, for wrongful death by Hartman’s family in 1999.
Oberly said the judgment was the result of the men not responding to the civil suit, called a “default judgment,” because they had been convicted in the murder and were in prison.
“That is not something we’re thinking about now,” Oberly said. “We got ‘em home for Christmas, and it’s very sweet.”
Meantime, Hartman’s brother, Sean “Chris” Kelly, is left without a sense of justice.
Kelly did not respond to requests for an interview Friday, but he was allowed to speak at the Thursday hearing before the murder convictions against the Fairbanks Four were vacated.
“It doesn’t make sense to me how any of this can even happen,” Kelly said. “I guess, in my mind, what I’ve come down to is it’s better to let a few guilty men go than to have innocent men in jail for something they didn’t do. Which I see as a lesser violation, for an innocent person.”
Kelly, though, said he still considers the Fairbanks Four convicted murderers. He questioned how the judge overseeing the case, who was about the approve the settlement, could sleep at night.
“I don’t see how you can justify making this deal. Out of fear? I don’t know,” Kelly said.
Contact staff writer Casey Grove at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/kcgrove.
Correction: This article has been changed to reflect the following correction.
An earlier version of this story omitted Rashan Brown's name among the three alternate suspects in prison for murders committed after John Hartman's death.