Day 11 – Testimony of Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent

KevinCourtTwo 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.

EugeneVentCourtVent 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.

truth

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Blank Tape: The Science Behind Alcohol Induced Blackouts

When I was a young kid VCR’s were the newest, coolest standard in technology. I remember thinking that you could tell a kid was rich if they had a Big Wheels car, and that they were really, really rich if they had one of those cars and a VCR.

Eventually my parents came upon some kind of windfall and we got one of our own. Then our neighbors brought their VCR over for us to borrow, along with a bunch of movies. It was quite the sight to see. There were cords everywhere – one VCR stacked on top of the next, packages of blank tapes, this bizarre recording machine built by my father, which he controlled with the carefully timed pressing of buttons. The setup was supposed to work like this: one VCR played the movie, the other one recorded it. All the blank tapes would soon be full of free movies.

My dad stayed up all night copying films, including E.T. I hated that movie, it scared the crap out of me, and I was absolutely horrified to think about my sister being able to watch it whenever she liked. So, when my dad took a quick break to the bathroom I walked to the VCR tower and pulled a few plugs, effectively disconnecting the communication between the two VCRs. When my dad came back he sat on the couch and watched the rest of E.T. convinced it was being recorded. From the outside, it was impossible to tell that the movie wasn’t being transferred. When my sister eventually sat down to watch it, the first bit of the movie was there, and then without notice, nothing. Complete black nothing.

Alcohol blackouts work exactly like that. The film cannot be played back because it was never recorded.

Blackouts are a simple phenomenon in many ways: if you get drunk enough, alcohol interferes with the creation of long-term memory. Short-term memory is like this first VCR, playing the movie. You may be able to engage in physically or emotionally complex actions, and your brain will use the information around you to continue functioning, but it simply will not convert the information into long-term memory. Long term memory is like the second VCR. The movie is playing on the screen, the record button is blinking, everything appears to be working just fine, but that last drink essentially disconnected the two VCRs.

One thing scientists do not understand is why some people experience blackouts and other people do not. There have been studies of all kinds, but they do not provide a simple answer. It is controversial to make the statement that Alaska Natives or Native Americans experience blackouts more than other people, but there is some evidence that that is the case. The only thing I can say is that I myself blackout completely when I get really drunk. Not every time, and I cannot say what causes it to happen and what prevents it. That is, of course, not a scientific study, just the unflattering truth. I don’t know if my ancestry or some other factor is to blame, but I must have played the locally popular drinking game upriver-downriver hundreds of times in the 90’s, and I can’t remember the end of one of those games to save my life. Which is why it was easy for me to understand that George and Eugene, both having drank in that fashion, had blacked out at points in the night.

I never questioned whether or not blackouts were scientifically proven because I didn’t need to – I know they are real. I grew up around people who experienced them. Family, friends, and myself. I was raised with that truth. But if it is the case that most people do not experience blackouts, it would explain why so many people do not believe that they happen, and I want to address that. I would also like to ask a favor of readers – if YOU have blacked out, comment about it, anonymously if you like. I think it is important for skeptics to understand what many of us know, which is that alcohol related blackouts happen. The scientific verdict came in a LONG time ago regarding alcohol induced blackouts – they are absolutely, completely, totally real.

So, why a post about blackouts on this blog? Because alcohol induced blackout is an important issue in the case of the Fairbanks Four.

Let me start be reiterating that, although George and Eugene both drank heavily the night of the murder, both WERE certain of their whereabouts at the time of 1:30am (read their timelines HERE and HERE).

NO ONE in this case was blacked out at the time of the murder. NO ONE in this case was unsure about where they were at the tie of the murder, and even though they were young, drunk, and terrified, correctly stated their whereabouts, which were verified with alibis, for that time frame. But when they were interrogated, the police did not have any idea what time the crime had taken place but appeared to be working on a theory that it had happened much later. So, even when Eugene and George eventually agree to the interrogator’s story, based on times alone these incriminating statements still would not be accurate. However, it is important to understand how alcohol related blackout effected the investigation.

Both George and Eugene had been drunk enough that they felt they could not be 100% sure of their every move that night. Both had experienced blackouts in the past, and were open to the possibility that they may have been somewhere that they didn’t remember. But they were interrogated by police officers who insisted that blackouts were fiction -“scientifically impossible” and that continuing to state that they were unsure where they had been, that there were blank spots, would result in the police “filling in the blanks with the worst thing.” (Read about their interrogations HERE and HERE).

While investigating and interrogating the Fairbanks Four Detective Aaron Ring took a stab at being a scientist and lectured in great detail about the science behind blackouts. According to Detective Ring, only “people with Alzheimer’s and old alcoholics” could have blackouts. While interrogating George, he said simply, “You can’t have a complete blackout.”

The officers then moved on to stating a long litany of made-up evidence. For hours and hours they told these intoxicated and terrified young men incredible lies. Among those lies were statements that there was scientific proof that they had been at the crime scene. That their friends said they were there. That people very close to them said they had committed this crime. So, ultimately, these two were left in a terrible predicament: the honest answer, that they could not be 100% sure of their movements, was recast by the interrogators to be an admission of the worst kind of guilt, and would not be accepted.

At the end of the day, their consumption of alcohol left them especially vulnerable to interrogation techniques that can produce false confessions from sober people with no questionable memory. The officers involved should have never used the interrogation techniques on people so young, intoxicated persons, or any person who admitted that their memory of a night was compromised. The specific interrogation technique, the Reid Model, is highly controversial, banned in many countries, and KNOWN to lead to false confessions, especially in young people. Given the severity of the interrogation and the circumstances, it is a wonder that only two of the four relented under it.

Below are some resources on the science behind alcohol induced blackouts for those who are interested in my sources or want to read about this subject on their own.

http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/186-196.htm

http://news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/747.aspx

http://addictionrecoverybasics.com/alcohol-blackout-types-of-alcoholic-blackouts-how-they-work-and-consequences/

Sites/ Studies Looking Specifically at Alcohol Related Amnesia in Native Americans/ Alaskans

http://www.wellbriety-nci.org/Publications/myth.htm

http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/PublicHealth/research/centers/CAIANH/journal/Documents/Volume%204/4%283%29_Wolf_Commentary_on_Alcohol_Policy_new.pdf

http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/PublicHealth/research/centers/CAIANH/journal/Documents/Volume%202/2%283%29_Wolf_The_Barrow_Studies_new.pdf