The late Judge James Wickersham, whose name WC has shamelessly appropriated for his blog, was a man of great conscience. WC honors Judge Wickersham’s memory by awarding an annual Person of the year Award.
In past years, WC has chosen as his person of the year a national or even international figure. But there are folks in Fairbanks who have made a big difference, too. The values WC looks for in his picks are a certain principled stubbornness, extraordinary hard work, a willingness to self-sacrifice and a passion for their cause. Most of all, WC looks for a person who has taken those qualities and made a difference.
Brian O’Donoghue, a professor of journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a former reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, possesses all of those qualities and, through his efforts, achieved the release, if not justice, for the Fairbanks Four.
It was O’Donoghue’s reporting and his use of the Fairbanks Four as a case study for his journalism student that kept the spotlight on the case for some 15 years. It was his work, and the work he inspired in his students, that blew the State of Alaska’s case apart.
At one point in the five week long hearing that prompted the resolution of the case, the State of Alaska shamefully attacked O’Donoghue, accusing him of improper conduct. If there was a single point when the State’s actions crossed from prosecution to persecution, that was it, but O’Donoghue emerged unscathed.
Like most of us who believed the state’s case against George Frese, Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts and Kevin Pease was flimsy at best, O’Donoghue is unhappy with the outcome. Yes, the Fairbanks Four are free, but the State of Alaska extorted concessions from the four that should trouble the conscience of every Alaskan. Young men, almost certainly wrongfully held in jail for fifteen years, were forced to surrender their claims for the State’s misconduct as a condition to being released. WC isn’t sure such a bargain isn’t unconscionable. But we may never know.
O’Donoghue didn’t win the fight alone. Props should go to the Alaska Innocence Project, and to the attorneys who volunteered their time to represent the Fairbanks Four in the case before Judge Lyle. Their work brought the State of Alaska to the settlement table. Props to the family members and friends of the Fairbanks Four, too, who never gave up.
But it was Brian O’Donoghue who, for some 14 years, kept the spotlight on the case. He was the outsider who made the biggest difference.
Which is why WC awards him the Wickersham’s Conscience Person of the Year.