A judge will decide whether a federal civil rights suit filed against the city of Fairbanks can proceed. Four Native men, known as the Fairbanks Four, allege racial bias driven police misconduct, including coercion of false confessions and fabrication of evidence, lead to their being wrongfully convicted of a 1997 murder. The civil suit is the latest development in an unresolved case that continues to haunt the community.
New evidence heard in 2015 pointed to alternative suspects in the 1997 beating death of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman, but exoneration of the Fairbanks Four, long jailed for the murder, hinged on a slow legal process, and the men opted to settle with the state and city. The agreement vacated the convictions of George Frese, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent and Marvin Roberts, but also barred them from suing for damages, a stipulation they’re now challenging in federal court.
Fairbanks Four attorney Mike Kramer says the men had little choice but to go along with the December 17th 2015 settlement.
“This is an involuntary agreement, thrust upon three men who’d been incarcerated for an excess of 72 years, wrongfully, that wanted to get out for Christmas,” Kramer said. “Of course, Marvin Roberts was out on parole, but the other three depended on him signing this agreement as well. It was an all or nothing.”
Kramer says the Supreme Court only allows such agreements under strict guidelines.
”And that is essentially whether the agreement was voluntary and whether it serves the public interest,” Kramer said.
Kramer maintains the Fairbanks Four release agreement does not serve the public interest, especially from the city’s perspective.
”If the city really believed that these guys were murderers, it’s hard to imagine how public policy can be served to set murderers free, in exchange for them to cover up official misconduct, or not bring claims alleging official misconduct,” Kramer said.
Kramer says the case is unique in that others challenging such agreements have involved lesser crimes.
City attorneys have requested the case be dismissed. Their motion maintains the Fairbanks Four voluntarily agreed to the settlement, an agreement they’re using to show they were wrongly convicted, and at the same time challenging in court. City attorneys declined to comment, or did not reply to requests for comment, but their motion says damage suits require an official finding of innocence, something the settlement does not provide.
The Fairbanks Four legal team filed a response to the city’s motion to dismiss the case July 2nd. The city has until August 6th to reply, after which the judge can set up a time to hear arguments on the dismissal motion.
The Hartman murder remains unsolved. No physical evidence has linked anyone to the crime, and none of the alternative suspects pointed to in the 2015 hearing have been charged.