Alaska Innocence Project faces challenges

Posted: Tuesday, January 11, 2011

FAIRBANKS — Have authorities in Alaska put an innocent person behind bars? The Alaska Innocence Project is screening about 60 cases.

The office is only a few years old, and executive director Bill Oberly said he is probably years away from proving wrongful conviction in a criminal case.

But Oberly, the Alaska Innocence Project’s sole employee, remains optimistic, especially in light of the case of Cornelius Dupree of Texas.

Dupree was declared innocent last week after he served 30 years in a Texas prison for a rape and robbery that DNA testing shows he did not commit.

“I will leave no rock unturned to try and establish whether there is a wrongful conviction and whether we can prove that,” Oberly said.

The Alaska Innocence Project is a statewide organization based in Anchorage and affiliated with the national Innocence Project in New York City.

More than a hundred requests for help from people across the state have come to Oberly since the project hired him three years ago.

Initial screening pared the list to about 60. Some cases are denied because they are premature or still working their way through the legal system.

“We are kind of a last step,” Oberly said. “They have gone through all of the appeals. They have gone through all of the attacks on the conviction. We are the last hurrah.”

Of the 60 cases Oberly is looking into, only a fraction will move forward to the next phase, which involves working to prove a person’s innocence.

Requests from three convicted murderers have reached that stage. Two, Marvin Roberts and George Frese, are from Fairbanks.

Roberts and Frese are two of four men convicted of the 1997 killing of 15-year-old John Hartman.

“There’s a whole group of people who have urged us to look into the case because they think these guys were wrongfully convicted,” Oberly said. “We are trying to do that. It’s a slow process.”

The chairman of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Journalism Department and journalism students have volunteered to assist Oberly.

DNA evidence is not available in connection with the Hartman murder, so the effort to exonerate the convicted men involves examining the available evidence and looking for new evidence.

“The Hartman case was largely circumstantial,” UAF journalism department chairman Brian O’Donoghue said. “I have never seen anything that persuades me that the person who killed John Hartman was brought to justice in this case. I believe their conviction was based upon witness misidentification, bad science and flawed confessions. Courts have chewed over the things that have been flagged as problems in this case. So far, courts have not been persuaded.”

Oberly said he wrote certified letters to state officials asking that they preserve the evidence in the Hartman case. He never heard back.

A query about the status of the evidence to the Alaska Attorney General’s office was referred to the Fairbanks District Attorney’s Office. Multiple attempts to reach the Fairbanks district attorney for this story were unsuccessful.

O’Donoghue said he has assisted the Innocence Project by searching the Fairbanks area for an abandoned 1976 red Monte Carlo that might be connected to Hartman’s killing.

“You can’t reopen it without new evidence,” O’Donoghue said. “That sort of evidence is proving elusive.”

Oberly said DNA evidence is available in only about 10 percent of cases.

“The non-DNA exonerations are going be the majority of them,” he said. “They are much harder work. In non-DNA cases, you often have to be much more creative.”

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