In 1997, Rashan Brown was, by all outward appearances, a typical high school student. He was a senior at Lathrop High School, where he at one point served on the school paper. Brown once published an interview with classmate William Holmes. Holmes would include Brown in his own nonficiton account some fifteen years later. In his written confession, Holmes named Rashan Brown as a fellow participant in the brutal kicking death of Jonathan Hartman. According to Holmes, he and Rashan Brown along with fellow Lathrop students Marquez Pennington, Shelmar Johnson, and Jason Wallace, left a house party on in the early morning hours of October 11, 1997, and drove to downtown Fairbanks and killed John Hartman for fun. Hartman was discovered draped across a curb, fatally wounded and comatose. He died the following day. Four other young men were swiftly arrested for and convicted of Hartman’ killing and remained imprisoned despite their unbroken insistence that they are innocent, no physical evidence linking them to the crime, and significant evidence to include Holmes’ own confession, that link the alternate suspects to the crime.
Rashan Brown was the son of a local community leader and city councilwoman and has no public criminal record in Alaska. What is known of Brown is that some months after the Hartman murder he is rumored to have had a mental breakdown of sorts. He was sent to live with his father in Oregon, where it seems things did not improve.
On December 13, 1999, Rashan Brown met up with Julie Ann Wilde and Victor Torres, aged 18 and 19, with the victims believing that the meeting was for the purposes of Brown purchasing drugs. Evidence indicates that Brown had planned a murder of this type for some time, and intended to kill Torres and Wilde to steal any drugs and money they had. Brown indeed shot both victims at close range and left their bodies where they fell. He threw away the bicycle he had been spotted on driving to and from the crime scene and reported it stolen. He went to the home of an acquaintence and offered him $20 to tell police he had been there all night. Brown became a suspect in the killing. His bicycle was found in a dumpster, a handful of witnesses came forward to implicate Brown in the crime, the murder weapon was recovered, and blood from the victims was found on his underwear.
Brown was tried for aggravated murder as well as conspiracy. During trial he was extremely disruptive. He engaged in many yelling and screaming courtroom outbursts, hunger strikes, was repeatedly removed from the courtroom, and his state of mind was debated back and forth by defense and prosecution. Although the defense asserted that Brown was mentally ill and not fit for trial, the prosecution believed he was, and not only that Brown was fit, but that his outbursts and behaviors were a farce.
Brown was ultimately convicted of his crimes and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He filed many appeals, all predicated on accusations of procedural missteps, but received no decisions favorable to his position and has exhausted his appeal process.
The blood spilled in the injustice that began with the killing of John Hartman and was followed by this wrongful conviction is incredible. Brown demonstrates well the ultimate price of leaving the guilty on the streets. Had the right men been arrested in 1997, many people who are dead would be alive. This includes the victims of Brown – Julie Ann Wilde and Victor Torres – whose families must live with incredible loss and grief, and may not even know how their personal injustice is interwoven with an injustice many miles north.
As to Brown, it is impossible to say who is was in 1997, and further impossible to know the contents of his mind and heart before the night John Hartman was killed. It is clear that his life took a dark turn. It is, again, sad to consider who Rashan brown may have been had justice found him in 1997. In the Holmes account of the Hartman killing, five high school aged boys left a house party with a plan to assault “drunk Natives” for fun. When they could not fund a suitable victim, they happened upon Hartman and said, “we got one!” Holmes pulled the car up to the child, and the other four young men jumped out and attacked him. They knocked him to the ground and kicked him. And, then, Jason Wallace kept kicking. And stomping. And kicking. The boy shuddered his last while Jason Wallace kicked and Marquez Pennington rifled through his pockets. And, once back to the car, Wallace sat silent while the other boys screamed.
What if? Those may be the two saddest words in the English language, used to number losses unknown. What if they had been pulled over just moments after they pulled away? What if John Hartman had gotten medical treatment in minutes, not hours? What if they had told the truth that night, and not lived under the burden of a terrible secret? What if Jason Wallace had been sentenced to life for the unimaginably brutal kicking death of a child? What if the others, with less involvement and still minors, had received sentences that reflected the gravity of the events, but included rehabilitation? Who might they have been? And who may still be alive?
We will never know if Brown may have grown up to be okay had he been caught that night. We may never know whether he became ill under the weight and trauma of a terrible secret and the fear of killers, or if he was destined to break. But we do know that had he been incarcerated in December of 199, as he absolutely should have been for his role in the killing for John Hartman, that Julie Ann Wilde and Victor Torres would be alive today. Our hearts are with those families. In a few short days the Fairbanks Four will have another chance in court. Someday, they will come home. There is no such relief for the families of the other victims, and the permanency of their loss is a tragic reminder of our blessings. May they heal, hope, and see a greater justice someday.