Two of the Fairbanks Four, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent, took the stand during the 11th day of proceedings. The two men spoke to a packed courtroom and recounted the events of the night of October 10th, the early morning of October 11th, and the series of interrogations and events that lead to their wrongful arrest and conviction for the murder of John Hartman,.
Pease and Vent joined Marvin Roberts at the petitioners table, dressed in street clothes and flanked by attorneys. It was clear the three were happy to see each other, but the mood quickly turned somber. Pease and Vent were chained at the waist, and barely able to lift their hands high enough to be sworn in. They are aged. Both men look old enough now to be the fathers of the boys pictured in the photographs the last time they appeared in a Fairbanks Courtroom some eighteen years ago.
Pease took the stand first and described, as his alibi witnesses described in initial 1997 police contact, the original trials, and recently on the stand again, a night spent mostly at a party across town. Pease also described his background, life in 1997, and the police interrogation.
In initial questioning about family background Pease testified that he is an orphan. His father was murdered some six months before Kevin was sent to prison. His mother passed away while he was in custody. In 1997 he was living with his mother in downtown Fairbanks and both of them were grieving the sudden loss of his father. The mood in their house, he said, was tense. Different. Kevin was spending most of his free time with girlfriend Jessica Lundeen, who had to babysit the night of October 10th. So Kevin agreed to attend a party with friends, among them Eugene Vent, Kevin Bradley, Shara David, and Joey Shank. Kevin testified, as have many others, that they remained at a party in the Bradley residence until near 2:00am, then returned to downtown. Kevin was dropped off at home. When he went inside he woke up his mom, who was angry at him for making noise, and even angrier when she saw he was drunk. In his testimony, Pease described an argument that escalated into yelling, with Pease eventually punching the wall. He took off on his three-wheeler and his mother called the police on him. It was this call that led police to bring Pease into the investigation.
Pease described riding the three-wheeler to the home of friends Conan and Shawna Goebel, who both testified to the same series of events and the police behavior during their eventual questioning.
A large amount of testimony and cross-examination was spent on Kevin’s interrogation – specifically his initial choice to lie to detectives. By the time the police picked him up late on October 12, 1997, Pease had already heard rumors that Vent had been implicated in the a serious crime and that police wanted to speak to him about it as well.
“I was scared. I didn’t know what time I came back to town, I didn’t know what time this happened to that kid, I didn’t know what time it was when I walked home alone,” said Pease, his voice cracking into tears. “I was scared.”
It was fear, Pease testified, that motivated him to lie and deny having been out drinking or driving around that night. His girlfriend Jessica Lundeen had suggested he say he was with her all night, and he did. She testified to as much just days before Pease took the stand. Much of cross-examination focused on what State Special Prosecutor described as Pease’s “big whopping lie.” Pease remained adamant that he had lied to detectives out of fear, knew right away it was a mistake when he understood the seriousness of the charges, asked for an attorney, and corrected it.
As cross-examination continued, Pease was asked if he knew a James Wright. Pease testified that he did not, but that he saw that he was aware of his reputation as a snitch due in part to the words “James Wright is a snitch” being carved into the wall of Fairbanks Correctional Center.
Bachman used this line of questioning to accuse Pease of understating his understanding of prison politics.
Pease countered that he understood but preferred not to take part in prison politics, and that it was “common knowledge” that snitches are thought poorly of in prison culture. The line of questioning was interesting in that it likely points to an upcoming snitch witness for the Sate. Perhaps they found him after reading of his snitching abilities on the prison walls.
Kevin Pease was followed by Eugene Vent. Vent was seventeen and had a blood alcohol content of twice the legal limit when Officer Aaron Ring interrogated him for nearly 12 hours. Vent eventually agreed that he “probably” assaulted Hartman. Eugene Vent’s interrogation was the focus of cross-examination by Bachman.
Vent testified that a lack of confidence in his memory due to intoxication, police insistence that his “footprints were in the blood” and fingerprints at the scene, that witnesses placed him there, and other lies police used in interrogation eventually persuaded him he could have been there.
“I was listening to everything he told me. And eventually, I just believed him, Vent said. “I was feeling terrible, guilty.”
“Why?” Vent’s attorney, Whitney Glover, asked.
“Because I believed I had done something real bad,” Vent said, breaking into tears.
Vent went on to describe in greater detail how the Reid Method interrogation he endured led him to a state of such confusion he didn’t know what happened. Although he maintained innocence for many hours, he said, by the end of the process he was confused, felt obligated to help the officers any way he could, and ultimately followed their lead in agreeing he had “probably hit and kicked” a young John Hartman, and that he “guessed” he had been with George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts.
“I’m responsible for dragging Marvin and Kevin and George into this and there’s not a day that goes by I don’t think about that,” Vent said, again becoming emotional.
Adrienne Bachman made it clear that she expects his cross-examination to be long and continue through the twelfth day of proceedings.
Although Vent’s eventual acquiescence to the police officers and subsequent implicating statements are often touted by the State of Alaska as the smoking gun in this case, experts in false confessions have called his statements a “textbook false confession.” Experts on the Reid Method, the method of interrogation used on Vent, caution that the method should not be used on minors, people who are intoxicated, or people who have any gaps in their memory. Under any of those circumstances, of which Vent had all three, the method is known to lead to false confession.
Vent’s attorney is expected to call a false confession expert to testify as to the psychology behind Vent’s statements. Continued cross-examination of Vent and the false confession expert testimony are likely to consume the twelfth day of proceedings.
Although revisiting imperfections and bad decisions is embarrassing – discussing a decision to lie to the police, a decision as a teenager to drink, and all the small sins that surface in this case – it is necessary. Because the whole truth is that no one is perfect. The whole truth is that being drunk, poor, Native, and in the wrong place at the wrong time made this possible. The whole truth is what needs to be told, even in moments that it makes the Fairbanks Four or their alibis look imperfect, because the whole truth is that no one is perfect. It is high time for the courts to recognize the truth, for the family of John Hartman to receive the truth, and these men to have opportunity to tell it. Nothing but good will come from that.
I was first able to read the actual transcripts of the police interviews after the trials were over. Two things struck me immediately. The first was that the supposedly verbatim transcriptions of the taped interviews seemed oddly disjointed and incomplete – statements seemingly made out of context – lacking continuity. Tape being turned off and then back on again. The second thing was that it was completely obvious that initially Eugene didn’t have a clue about the attack on John Hartman. He was bewildered by the reference to the street address…claimed that he was didn’t sell any marijuana; that he only told someone who they could buy from. Equally obvious that the so-called “confession” consisted of him agreeing that his friends wouldn’t lie about him being with them and if they said he did it, then he must have done it. He was too drunk to remember. His “confession” was simply a reiteration of the false scenario concocted by the police. But all the public heard was “confession”, and that, along with the sensationalism of the News Miner reporting, sent four innocent boys to prison.
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