It is hard not to still sit back and wonder how something this awful happens. There are of course a lot of decisions, a lot of coincidences, a lot of ordinary things that add up to an extraordinary outcome.
We have a box of photocopied stories from the newspaper about the Fairbanks Four case. Marvin’s sister Sharon diligently saved every clipping, every single word that filled the outrageous life-altering days that followed her brother’s arrest. I can imagine her collecting these pieces, trying to make sense out of something that did not make sense. Hoping it would be over soon. Not knowing these days would always elongate, stretch, grow to span a decade and a half.
On October 22, 1997 the Fairbanks Daily News ran an article about the four men pleading innocent. They had been marched into the courtroom the day before wearing orange jumpsuits and chained together. It was not standard for FCC prisoners to wear orange, or for defendants to be chained. The only private defense attorney present, Ken Covell, objected immediately, calling it grandstanding. And at that point, it was already all a play. The case against the four never added up. Nothing was corroborating the confessions, the dozens of people contacted all gave timelines that chipped away at the theory that these boys had committed a murder. In retrospect it is easy to see the case as troubled and insubstantial even in those first days. But at the time the public sentiment was not skeptical. The public was outraged and hungry for justice. The response to the innocent plea of the four men was indignation and disgust.
In the stack of clippings from October 22nd was a page from the paper that seems like a very poigniant, albeit accidental, commentary on the climate of Fairbanks in 1997. It’s a back page, where the headlines are continued. The words in bold are Prepare for Racial Incident. DEATH: pleas, HOLOCAUST, Natives:Meet. Prepare for Racial Incident.
Prepare for Racial Incident. There had been a study of the racial climate in Fairbanks area schools in early 1997, and the results just released revealed that most of the students and staff in the school district rated the level or racism inside the schools as high. The district discussed its plan, which was not focused on responding to racial incidents, but to teach respect and tolerance. The social climate of the time likely contributed to the arrest of the four, and the public’s willingness to immediately accept their guilt with little to substantiate it. What if the policy back then had been that an openly known highly racist culture was not okay and that incidents should be responded to? What if we were, actually, prepared for a racial incident?
NATIVES: Meet. The Alaska Federation of Natives met that week, and the article on the convention talked about the availability of books on Native culture, and announced the meetings on Native youth issues. The largest and best federation of indigenous Alaskans did not discuss this case. They did not discuss the increasingly apparent problems within the justice system, or the accusations piling up against a few investigators in the Interior. It would be ten years and more before they did. What if they had?
DEATH: pleas. John Hartman had died in one of the most brutal and memorable murders in Fairbanks history, and the four men accused of the crime appeared in court and spoke only their names, and their plea: INNOCENT. His death and their pleas went unanswered. What if they had been heard?
HOLOCAUST. It is defined many ways, one is the great destruction of humans by humans, resulting in massive loss.
That Wednesday back page of the local paper is a snapshot of Fairbanks circa 1997. That is who we were in 1997, and that is the town in which this wrongful conviction was born.