Convictions of four Alaska men over 1997 beating death of teen dismissed
BREAKING: Fairbanks Four to be released.
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — The latest in the case of the Fairbanks Four, or the four indigenous men convicted in the 1997 beating death of a teenager on a street in Fairbanks, Alaska. The four men, who’ve long fought their conviction for the 1997 killing of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman, had their murder convictions erased under a deal that’s similar but not identical to one proposed last week.
UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations’ “gross institutional failure” to act on allegations that French and other peacekeepers sexually abused children in the Central African Republic led to even more assaults, according to a new report released Thursday.George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent are free men today, after 18 years in custody for a crime they and another friend paroled earlier didn’t commit.
The so-called Fairbanks Four accepted the deal during an unscheduled hearing in Fairbanks, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported (http://is.gd/cdv2Er). The independent panel found that the accounts by children as young as 9 of trading oral sex and other acts in exchange for food in the middle of a war zone in early 2014 were “passed from desk to desk, inbox to inbox, across multiple U.N. offices, with no 1 willing to take responsibility.” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a statement, expressed “profound regret that these children were betrayed by the very people sent to protect them” and said he accepted the panel’s broad findings. The panel, led by Canadian judge Marie Deschamps, found that U.N. staffers failed or hesitated to pass the children’s allegations to more senior officials, sometimes because of political concerns with France involved; showed “unconscionable delays” in protecting and supporting the children; failed to further investigate the allegations; failed to properly vet peacekeepers for past abuses; and, overall, appeared more concerned with whether one U.N. staffer had improperly alerted French authorities.
Under the agreement, the state throws out the indictments and murder convictions of the Four; the men agree to not sue the state and other agencies involved in their arrests and convictions. The settlement came after a six-hour closed-door negotiation Thursday on the fifth floor of the Rabinowitz Courthouse with retired Superior Court Judge Niesje Steinkruger, who presided over Frese’s 1999 trial in Anchorage. Friends, family members and supporters of the men began assembling outside the locked courtroom by mid-morning Thursday, taking turns to peek through a crack in the door to look into the court. The Alaska Innocence Project, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and others contend the men were victims of a racially-tinged rush to judgment by police and prosecutors eager for a conviction for Hartman’s death.
Alaska Native leaders have long advocated for their release, saying the convictions were racially motivated and emblematic of how Alaska Natives have been treated by the justice system. The new report lays bare one of the most persistent and embarrassing problems for the U.N. and its member countries as tens of thousands of peacekeepers serve in some of the world’s most volatile areas: Some vulnerable people are raped by their protectors, and often no one is punished. The country had been ripped apart by violence between Christians and Muslims, and thousands of frightened people had sought shelter in squalid camps at the airport. After the hearing, Kelly told The Associated Press he was flabbergasted at the outcome, saying only guilty people would have accepted such an agreement. Almost a year passed before such allegations by a half-dozen children were made public in media reports this past April and May, leading Ban to order the independent investigation.
He had been considering pardons for the men. “I hope this settlement helps to begin the healing process, and provides some measure of justice and closure for Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, George Frese and Marvin Roberts as they return home to their families,” Walker said. “Justice prevails!” U.S. But from the men’s standpoint, a court decision on their petition to have their convictions overturned would likely be followed by appeals, which could mean more time in the system, Monroe said. At this point, “It’s just a matter of getting home,” Monroe said. “They could stay in and demand compensation” after being exonerated. “But they’ve already missed 17 Christmases; how much are you going to sell that 18th Christmas for?
One child, who a year earlier at age 11 had told U.N. staffers about watching peacekeepers rape his friends, “now reported that he himself had been orally and anally raped.” The panel found it “appalling” that the children didn’t receive immediate medical care. The exoneration effort’s legal team was bolstered by attorneys from the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney and attorney Whitney Glover from the state Office of Public Advocacy. Hartman’s older brother Sean “Chris” Kelly spoke to the court by phone. “If they’re innocent — if you believe that all of a sudden now — I don’t see why you could even justify doing this to them. The report says France “took strong and immediate action” to investigate after receiving a U.N. document with the allegations in July 2014, but it called that a “stark contrast to the apparent failure of French authorities to react” in May 2014, when the U.N. human rights staffer who had interviewed the children says she spoke with French military officials. A judge then canceled a hearing over the proposed deal, saying it was unclear whether he had the authority to free the men without a pardon or clemency.
Holmes Sr., who was a senior at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks in 1997, said he was present when Hartman was fatally beaten by a group of four of his Lathrop classmates. But his investigators agreed with state prosecutors that there wasn’t enough evidence pointing to the five alternate suspects named in this case, he said. “My department has never said we’ve overlooked any of the suspects,” he said. “We’re not doing any more investigatory work unless something ever popped up that became very fruitful. “We didn’t see — along with the prosecution — that anything else was viable to pursue, because we would be pursuing it,” he said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to pursue anything different.” U.N. officials also have accused the human rights official who first handed French authorities the report describing the allegations, Anders Kompass, of breaching policy by not redacting the children’s names.
If the concerns about redacting the names and protecting the children from possible reprisals were real, the panel said, the U.N. would have acted to offer protection. “Instead, no one took any steps whatsoever to locate the children.”
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