We grieve John Hartman.
The hardest, most painful part of writing the story of the Fairbanks Four is to trespass on the memories and recall the horrific final moments of a young boy we never knew.
In the graphic court photos, the mountains of expert affidavits analyzing his cause of death, explorations of causative instruments, manners of death, autopsies, soft tissue, timelines, witnesses, pants, the photographs of him ailing in a hospital bed aired as he lay dying in an effort to identify him, the letters to the editor, the newspaper articles, the school picture, the photo of him kneeling in his football uniform run over and over in the articles not about his life, but his terrible death…..in all of these documents someone’s child became a court exhibit. But never, ever forget, those who fight for the Fairbanks Four fight for this boy as well.
In those terrible photographs, below the wounds, was the face of someone who was loved. A son, a brother, a friend, a person. He was a baby once, freshly born, and surely his mother marveled over his little wrinkled fingers as all mothers do, so impossibly small. So perfect. His birth was the most common and divine miracle that any life is. He came into being. He smiled for the first time. He laughed. He learned to walk, tumbled on unsteady feet. Someone ran their hand over his forehead to check for a fever, someone kissed him goodnight. Maybe he wrestled with his brothers, made his friends laugh. He blew out candles on birthday cakes, he woke up in delight on Christmas mornings. He smiled toothless into those early elementary school photos. John Hartman grew out of chubby cheeks and freckles sprinkled across his nose, the winds of hundreds of summer days swept over him, the sun warmed his skin. He had a first kiss, a crush, secret dreams, unique hopes. Surely, his life contained all of these typical moments, and the thousands of moments unique to him known only to those who truly knew him. He became a boy, then a young man, grew into that middle season where childhood is waning, and the future is wide open.
And then, he was so unfairly interrupted. His life came to an end. They say that all of those moments flash before the dying, that the last thing we do before we leave our bodies is remember the life we lived in them. Hopefully, that is true, and the life that flashed before him was a happy one.
I wish we could articulate how it is impossible to work to prove the innocence of the Fairbanks Four and to tell their story without grieving the child whose death they were accused of causing – how often the reality and weight of his suffering and the magnitude of his pain and the grief of his loss weighs on us.
George Frese said he thinks of him every night, that he prays to him simply, expressing sorrow that his life ended so terribly, and implores him for help from the other side. These four men all understand that their lives are inextricably connected to the life and death of a boy they never knew, and what has arisen from that is a kind of powerful and sad kinship.
To fight for justice is to fight for justice. That four young men who committed no crime are imprisoned is a terrible injustice. That whoever killed John Hartman has never been held accountable is a terrible injustice. Every time his death is examined, discussed, his name is said out loud, the fact that he was murdered is discussed without equal understanding that he also lived – all of that is an injustice. The wrongful convictions that followed the murder of an innocent child have, perhaps, prevented him from resting peacefully, which he deserves. But the greatest injustice of all is that John Hartman died while he was just a little boy, and that the endless possible futures in his path were taken from him. In his obituary his family shared that John wanted to attend college in Michigan, where he hoped to play football and become a vet. In a world with true, pure justice, this young man would be in his thirties now, perhaps with a child of his own, marveling at the miracle that life is.
To anyone who loved and knew this boy, we are so sorry. We are so deeply sorry for your loss, and so sorry if the fight to prove the innocence of the Fairbanks Four hurts you. We are sorry for the greatest injustice of all in this story; the loss of his life and the hurt it brought upon you all.
Please remember that we never forget John Hartman. We are fighting for him, too, and doing everything we can to tell this story with tenderness and respect to the truly innocent boy who died in that long ago October.