Tears well up in Emerson Eads’ eyes as he turns from the conductor’s perch and greets audience members who have just given a standing ovation to Sunday afternoon’s Sacred Music at Notre Dame’s performance of his composition, “Mass for the Oppressed.”
“Honestly,” Eads admits, “I was definitely thinking about the four. When it got to Agnus Dei, I couldn’t hold myself together.”
“The four” were high school students — three Alaskan Natives and one American Indian — who have weighed heavily on Eads’ mind since 1998 when they were wrongly convicted of murder in Fairbanks, Alaska, and sentenced to prison.
When the Fairbanks Four — Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease and George Frese — were finally released in December last year after spending 18 years behind bars, Eads, now 36 and a Fairbanks native who was the same age as the Fairbanks Four when they were tried and convicted, knew he had to do something.
“I didn’t know them when they went into prison,” Eads says, “but after having gotten out it was such a huge deal that, eventually we met, and I just knew I had to write something for them.”
Eads began composing “Mass for the Oppressed” in January right after Roberts, Vent, Pease and Frese were released from prison as a result of a University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism professor’s long-term investigation into the beating death of 15-year-old John Hartman — who was white — turned up evidence that corroborated the four Natives’ claims of innocence.
He premiered “Mass for the Oppressed” in Fairbanks at the end of July in front of an audience that included the Fairbanks Four themselves. “And it just couldn’t have been any better,” says Eads, a chorale conducting graduate student in the University of Notre Dame’s Sacred Music Department.
On Sunday, in front of an audience of about 50 sitting inside the Holy Cross Chapel at Holy Cross College with video cameras rolling and sound recorders running to document the opera-style Mass for a record that will be released in March 2017 to benefit the Alaska Innocence Project, Eads conducted the Concordia Choir, the Ritornello Orchestra, and soloists Tess Altiveros, Jaunelle Celaire, Toby Newman, Barry Banks and David Miller in his local unveiling of “Mass for the Oppressed.”
Opening with “De Profundis” taken from Psalm 130 — “Out of the depths I have cried to you, O Lord/Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication” — the choir’s collective voice rang through Holy Cross Chapel, filling the air from brick to brick of the walls to every colored square of the brilliant sun-lit stained glass.
The traditional spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” followed, before giving way to “Mass for the Oppressed,” a five-part segment beginning with “Kyrie: Is there no help for the widow’s son?” and filling out with “Gloria: Sing Gloria, Gloria,” “Credo: I Wish To Believe,” “Sanctus: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts Echoing King,” and the finale, “Agnus Dei.”
“It’s a setting of the Latin text that you normally hear at Mass, Latin text with a few different interpolations of English,” Eads says, adding that poetry used for “Mass of the Oppressed” was written by his brother, Evan Eads.
“Usually a Mass is Latin, but mine is kind of a hybrid,” Eads says. “My brother Evan wrote the poetry because I asked him to connect with this whole ordeal, and he came up with the idea that was the theme… It kind of has that dramatic opera quality about it, where a story takes place rather than a prayer. It’s not just a Mass, it’s kind of an opera in some ways.”
The story of the Fairbanks Four began outside an Eagles Hall wedding reception one cold October night in Fairbanks in 1997. The reception, which drew Alaska Native guests from remote villages all over the state, turned tragic after a woman smoking a cigarette on a balcony near the hall heard a series of hard smacks and a voice call out, “Help me! Help me!”
About an hour later, a passers-by found 15-year-old John Hartman lying beaten nearly to death on the ground not far from the balcony. The next morning, Hartman succumbed to his injuries in the hospital.
Soon after Hartman died, police arrested Vent on the report of a hotel clerk who said Vent had waved a gun at him earlier that evening. Vent, who was drunk when he was picked up, underwent a long, grueling interrogation by detectives before he finally offered a slurred confession and named his three friends and high school basketball teammates, Roberts, Frese and Pease, as accomplices in Hartman’s beating death.
At trial, the woman who heard the cry for help told jurors that one of the attackers spoke with a distinctive Native accent. Another man testified to seeing Roberts and the other three attack another man earlier on the night Hartman was killed — even though the witness admitted that at the time he was “drunk, high, and standing nearly 450 feet away.”
For the Fairbanks Four, it was just another case of civil rights injustice in a state long known for discrimination against Native Americans.
“The Native Alaskans have put up with horrible things ever since we came up there and decided to wreak havoc with gold mines,” Eads says. “More importantly, now there’s a real divide between what is perceived as justice for white people and justice for the minorities and underprivileged. This (case) has raised a huge awareness that Native Alaskans have not been treated with respect in the law.”
It took an extended investigation by University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism professor Brian O’Donoghue to preserve justice for the Fairbanks Four. New evidence surfaced, and a star government witness recanted and said police coerced him into a statement. But the biggest breakthrough came in 2012 when a convicted killer confessed to seeing his friend beat Hartman to death.
Still, the Fairbanks Four’s release from prison came with a catch: The state offered a deal that would overturn the convictions and instantly set the four free — if they signed a settlement agreement giving up their right to sue the state and withdraw their claims of prosecutoral misconduct.
“This is not a political statement,” Eads says of “Mass for the Oppressed.” “It’s not born out of some sort of sit-in or waving signs and placards. It’s a prayer where you can sit there and think about these awful things.
“When I met them in Fairbanks when they came (to the premiere of ‘Mass for the Oppressed’), I’m telling you, I fell apart. I gave them a hug… and embraced them. I was such a (bleeping) emotional mess because I was going through this guilt for how they were treated.”
The result: “A Mass to allow a little warm feeling for a little while,” Eads says. “I felt like I had to respond musically because of the gravity of the injustice.”