In the first of a three-part interview series with Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, and George Frese, the men reflect on the first moments of freedom.
For over eighteen years George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, and Eugene Vent languished in prisons cells, locked away for a crime they did not commit.
How many days does that add up to, one of the men wonders? This is the smart phone era, and with just three weeks of freedom behind them the four men have already learned that the internet can quantify almost anything. Seven thousand and nine days – ten million, ninety-two thousand, six hundred minutes.
“And believe me,” Marvin says, “we felt every single one.”
The four men, who were freed through a settlement agreement with the state of Alaska on the heels of a five week post-conviction relief hearing, sat down together for the first time to speak out about their experience and update supporters on their progress, answer reader and supporter questions, and discuss their lives since their recent release.
Eugene says it is important for the four to assure those who supported them they are doing well. “When we were there trapped in these cells hoping and praying, there were all these people right there with us in a sense. We felt that and I still feel that. They are such a blessing. An incredible blessing and I want them to know we are doing alright.”
Freedom, the four men agree, was on their minds constantly during their time as wards of the State of Alaska. “It was the thought that never went away,” George says. “It was the dream inside the nightmare. We kept faith and we knew someday we would be free, we just didn’t know when, or how. And the worst times, whether or not we could endure the journey there. But we knew it ended in freedom. But how? When? That was the thought that was always there sometimes in desperation and sometimes in anticipation. When?”
That question was finally answered on December 17, 2015, when a judge signed the settlement agreement from the State of Alaska that ended eighteen years of wrongful incarceration for the men. Freedom came like a flood, suddenly, and changed every aspect of the landscape of their existence. And just as their lives had been altered without warning all years ago, the doors to the Fairbanks Correctional Center opened in the other direction and the men walked free.
George describes the first moments of freedom in one word – “Surreal,” he says.
Kevin agrees. “You’re almost not even in the moment,” he says, “ it was like an out of body experience it was so surreal.”
Eugene contrasts the first moments of freedom to years of imagining the moment. “When I used to imagine our release it was always like more scripted,” Eugene says, “like a gavel comes down and we the judge ordered us unlocked, that’s how it was in my daydreams. But the actual moment was perfect. It felt so special, so comforting, just as it was meant to be. ”
Marvin had his custody altered to parole and had been out of prison half a year on the day of exoneration. He picked up his co-defendants in his recently purchased truck and they spent the first hour of freedom together.
Marvin considers the moment they left the jail together the moment of exoneration. “They unlocked the doors, unshackled them, simple as that. They let us all walk out the front doors and for the first time in eighteen years it was like things were as they should be,” he recalls. “Even though I had been out on parole, I was not a free man until that moment, until my brothers were free and we were exonerated. And I felt free, I felt light. Like a weight coming off my shoulders. The weight of being innocent men convicted, the weight of being out here waiting for them. It just felt okay for the first time in a very long time.”
After the men walked out the front door together, Kevin says they “drove around. We just cruised around. It was the first time we had been together in a car.”
Kevin shakes his heads at the irony.
“Isn’t it crazy?” he says, and laughs. “Eighteen years’ worth of people talking about us riding around together, and here the first time we are in a car together it’s the day we are released after all that time as innocent men in jail. That was surreal too.”
After spending their first hour of freedom together the men went to the David Salmon Tribal Hall, a traditional Native community hall where supporters and community members had spontaneously gathered upon news of the men’s release. The hall was filled to capacity. Supporters of the men prepared a meal to feed hundreds within an hour of their release and were gathered to welcome them home.
George recalls entering together through a side door. “It was crazy walking in and you just see it totally packed.”, he says. “There was just enough room to walk in with people all around. And I felt like right then at that moment we had come home. We were there two hours. So release, the hall, all of that was three hours total and it felt like one moment. I went from a cage, home. I can’t even describe it.”
Kevin takes an elongated pause before describing the welcoming at the tribal hall. “The sound,” he says, “I will always remember the sound. After eighteen years incarcerated and this limited number of sounds, it was like there was every sound in the world at once – voices, clapping, drums. Standing on that stage and looking at the smiles and tears, and listening to everyone applaud. And then maybe more than the noise was the silence. When we stood up to talk the noise was gone and the whole room was taken with this deafening silence. Looking out there on the silent crowd, just seeing our attorneys who fought for us, faces I ain’t seen in years. Seeing people smile, people with tears running down their face, knowing these people fought for us and brought us home, and we were home. That silence was powerful. Most powerful thing I ever heard.”
Donations are being accepted HERE to assist the Fairbanks Four in reintegrating. Their release conditions stipulated that they may not seek compensation for the 18 years of wrongful imprisonment.