The bearded and bespectacled man on the witness stand looked every bit the part of reporter and professor as eyes darted from one end of the courtroom to the other, following the volley of words between attorneys arguing about the man’s very presence in the courtroom. The notion alone of a reporter on the witness stand who has neither witnessed a crime nor participated in one, but has simply researched and written articles, is unsettling enough to spark debate. Over the objections of media attorney John McKay, to the horror of fellow journalists, and the great fascination of spectators, the reporter was indeed called to testify in the evidentiary hearing for four men who are widely believed to be wrongfully convicted of an eighteen year old murder.
O’Donoghue came to cover the murder of John Hartman and the convictions of four Native American youth quite by accident. The reporter was not assigned the story when a fifteen-year-old found brutally beaten to death on a downtown Alaskan street corner and four young Native men were swiftly arrested for the crime, but he recalled shrugging off the early gaps in the case narrative. In general, he said, the case seemed straightforward and properly covered.
“I will defend the paper’s coverage as free of bias and largely driven by official statements, typical of any high-profile event. The tone was set in the police press conference that Monday following the crime. Detective Keller announced the case solved through confessions, attributing the crime to a ‘spree of violence.’ That seemed definitive.”
But, the reporter would soon discover, the case conclusion was anything but definitive. In addition to writing as a senior reporter, O’Donoghue was the editor of the opinion page at the local newspaper, where letters to the editor insisting the four accused were innocent did not slow down even as the guilty verdicts rolled in. By the time O’Donoghue looked at the case the four accused had already been arrested, indicted, tried, and convicted in three separate trials, and on the surface the case was open and shut. The verdicts were so widely accepted as fact by the press that the case would likely have disappeared from the media entirely if not for the letters landing so persistently on the reporter’s desk.
“I was fact-checking a letter to the editor from a man named Curtis Sommer. He raised so many potentially libelous questions that I had to keep digging deeper and deeper into court files for verification, in the process finding more and more truth to his claims about the investigation, flaws and testimony conflict unresolved in court.”
O’Donoghue’s initial casual research into the case would spark an investigative reporting project that spanned more than fifteen years. His decision to fact-check the letter would ultimately lead the reporter from the comfortable anonymity of the newsroom, into a courtroom, and into the news himself.
The convictions of the four accused rested very heavily on the eye witness testimony of a man named Arlo Olson, whose testimony was the subject of the letter to the editor that sparked O’Donoghue’s curiosity. Olson was presented at trial as a moral man doing his rather heroic civic duty by coming forward with his account of seeing the four accused men together that night. But O’Donoghue rapidly uncovered a more complex vision of the star witness than the one presented at court, and subsequently printed in the media. Olson was facing charges for beating a pregnant woman when he came forward as a witness. Some months later he was granted a sentence with no jail time, with the judge’s stated motivation for the leniency that Olson had “assisted authorities.” Olson was a far cry from the academic and clean-cut young man the jury was led to believe stood before them, and in fact had a long and troubling criminal record. O’Donoghue also realized that Olson had been standing 550 feet away from the assault he claimed to have witnessed, in the dark, drunk, and in a crowd of people who all claimed to have seen nothing. O’Donoghue’s earliest research into the star witness produced even more startling revelations that the transcripts and public records. Olson had recanted, multiple times, including to the prosecuting attorney for the state who threatened Olson with perjury if he refused to testify.
The reporter sought out the star witness for an interview and found Arlo Olson in jail and willing to talk. Olson admitted that his testimony had been false and that he had not seen the four accused that night. He had a series of lengthy conversations with Olson, who wove stories about his troubled life and relationship complaints into his account of how his trial testimony came to pass. Olson told the reporter that he had legal troubles and was struggling with addiction in October of 1997, when police officer Aaron Ring approached him to see if he had seen anything the night in question. Officer Ring, Olson claimed, fed him information and pressured him until he agreed to the officer’s version of what Olson saw. Then, Olson claimed, Officer Ring and prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant worked together to coach Olson’s testimony and threatened him with prosecution for perjury if he refused testify in court. O’Donoghue recorded the conversations, lawfully, a process he eventually described in detail in his writing, and continued to research the case.
O’Donoghue reached out the convicted men. He corresponded with Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, George Frese, and Marvin Roberts. All four of the men remained steadfast in their claims of innocence. He corresponded regularly with Roberts.
As the research progressed, O’Donoghue left the Newsminer and began teaching journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He used his investigative journalism course as a lab for the complex and evolving work on the Hartman case. His students dissected the case, constructed timelines, interviewed witnesses, and ultimately secured access to interview the convicted men in prison.
O’Donoghue’s continued investigation into the case with the help of energetic would-be journalists would ultimately reveal that Olson was hardly the only facet of the case that seemed riddled with contradictions and was vastly different than what had been presented in such an open-and-shut fashion in the early media accounts and trials. His work culminated in the 2008 publication of a newspaper series called “Decade of Doubt.”
The articles consumed the front page of the paper for seven consecutive days and revealed the many inconsistencies in the investigation, the Olson inconsistencies, unearthed an illegal jury experiment, explored the details of the alleged confessions, presented the possibility of alternate suspects, and generally revealed to the community of Fairbanks that the case that had shocked them all in its brutality yet strengthened their faith in local justice may not be what it initially appeared. The series also gave a public voice for the first time to many Native community members and leaders who had long held the four were innocent.
The community was as polarized by the series as they had been by the crime. Although the assertions from a sector of the community that the men were innocent were as old as the case, the “Decade of Doubt” series brought the controversy into the mainstream community, and it was clear that the case was not going to go away any time soon. The series landed O’Donoghue and his work in the line of vision of powerful prosecutors, police officers, and politicians who all had a vested interest in the convictions of the four men.
As the years went on and more and more information came out about the case, O’Donoghue continued to cover the case. The revelation about illegal jury experiments during the original trials contributed to a successful appeal. O’Donoghue continued to cover the case as it wound through a maze of legal victories and failures, ultimately terminating when the Alaska Supreme Court was given the case and after years of consideration simply declined to make any decision at all.
O’Donoghue covered the inception of the Alaska Innocence Project, their decision to take on the case, the renewed effort to expose the wrongful conviction within the legal system, and the huge grassroots social movement in support of the men now popularly known as the “Fairbanks Four.” Indeed, the reporter’s coverage spanned a decade and a half, and saw the convicted men from youth to the cusp of middle age. The reporter himself had gone all gray by the time his coverage was interrupted by a subpoena from the State of Alaska demanding his letters, interviews, phone calls, research, notes, emails, and more.
The reporter refused to hand over materials which he believed disclosing would violate the constitutional right to freedom of the press, but was still forced to hand over a large volume of the information demanded.
Brian O’Donoghue’s work as a journalist secured him a place on the State of Alaska’s witness list.
They called him to the stand and the asked a series of questions aimed, presumably, at insinuating the journalist was somehow responsible for Arlo Olson recanting his testimony and that in general his press coverage of the case had contaminated the case to such a point that the witnesses he spoke to should be discounted. Embedded in the questions were a series of accusations.
The State accused O’Donoghue of recording his interviews with Arlo Olson secretly. They had no evidence to back the claim. In reality, O’Donoghue clearly indicated to Olson that they were on the record. “I lawfully recorded them and I had put on the record that I was interviewing him on the record,” O’Donoghue said on the stand.
Although the conversations were clearly recorded within the confines of the law and ordinary trade practices, it was striking that the State found it so objectionable. They of course did not deny that Olson had repeatedly recanted his testimony in 2001, as he had just days earlier in the same proceedings, but just insinuated that they didn’t like it. The move likely backfired as it led to the admission of Olson’s previous statements, which match his 2015 claims that his testimony was false, underscoring the likelihood of an alternative motivation in calling the reporter.
The State accused O’Donoghue of providing Olson legal advice. Olson had repeatedly told the reporter that he falsified his testimony because, among other reasons, he was threatened with prosecution for perjury if he recanted. O’Donoghue suggested to Olson that other sources had told O’Donoghue that Olson’s recantation was unlikely to be believable to most courts, save for his assertion that he feared prosecution. O’Donoghue did not tell Olson what he should do, only what others had said about the general reception and what his research had revealed. His exact words to Olson were, “It would be very difficult for them to, for the court to, accept that one way or another that you would change what you’ve said and sworn to already. The only kind of thing that would really persuade them about this, apparently, is for you to really persuade them that you were really scared about the whole perjury thing.”
The state insinuated that O’Donoghue had been too friendly to Marvin Roberts. Not that he had conspired with him, influenced him, and engaged in any activity beyond correspondence….simply that O’Donoghue had been too friendly. The questioning was so irrelevant and absurd that it would have been a hilarious parody of itself had the stakes not been so high. Because when our press is under fire, democracy is under fire.
Alongside the reporter and professor under fire in the courtroom, the very concept of freedom of the press and freedom of speech in Alaska came under scrutiny. As the reporter’s phone calls were played and his emails were read line by line, there was a message between the lines clearly communicated to the press of Alaska – if you write something your government doesn’t like, there are consequences.
The court proceedings in 2015 something important in common with the original troubled trials in that there was much more than met the eye to nearly every witness and exhibit presented. And that underscores the necessity of a free press in making the truth public. In the confines of a court, under the auspices of regulation and procedure, only part of the story can ever be told. If we are ever to see justice, and see revelation of the absolute truth, it requires a press free to report the truth without fear of retaliation.
When O’Donoghue was released from the witness stand he took his place in the gallery among the rest of the press. Previous to his release as a witness it would have been illegal for him to sit there and cover the story he had covered for more than fifteen years.
A lesser journalist would have backed down from this story long ago. Great journalists write until the story ends. Great journalists fear the end of the free press more than embarrassment. Brian O’Donoghue is certainly that kind of journalist, and we owe him a debt of gratitude as a community and state. Thank you, Brian O’Donoghue, for reporting the news, for not taking sides, for not worrying about ruffled feathers or bruised egos, and thank you for teaching the next generation of journalists to do the same.