Federal judge weighs Fairbanks Four civil case

A Fairbanks Four banner at the 2015 Alaska Federation of Natives Conference. (Photo by Mikko Wilson/KTOO)

It’s up to U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland to decide if a federal civil rights suit filed against the city of Fairbanks will proceed. Holland heard attorneys argue Wednesday in Fairbanks on a city motion to dismiss the suit filed by the Fairbanks Four.

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George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent allege racial bias drove police misconduct — including coercion of false confessions and fabrication of evidence — that led to them being wrongfully convicted of murder.

New evidence pointing to other suspects in the 1997 beating death of John Hartman resulted in a fall 2015 hearing, and an agreement with the state, under which the Fairbanks Four convictions were vacated. City attorney Matt Singer said the agreement does not meet the standard required to sue for damages.

“There’s a United States Supreme Court case that requires that before somebody comes to federal court in this kind of lawsuit, a malicious prosecution lawsuit, they first have to show what’s called a favorable termination in the criminal case,” Singer said. “And to do that, you have to show that you were — essentially, that you were found innocent.”

That’s an issue in the Fairbanks Four case because although the agreement vacated the men’s convictions, it did not make any determination about actual guilt or innocence. New York-based civil rights attorney Anna Benvenutti Hoffman argued on behalf of the Fairbanks Four. She contends the agreement with the state agreement constitutes a positive determination, and leverage for a civil suit.

“Once someone’s been exonerated, once they’ve been — their conviction’s been vacated, you know, they don’t have any further incidences, they can vote, then that’s when they can bring suit in federal court,” Hoffman said.

Judge Holland will decide which interpretation is right, according to precedent. Another Fairbanks Four attorney, Mike Kramer, calls the matter tricky.

“There’s, you know, many, many similar but not identical cases out there that both discuss these types of, you know, release dismissal agreements,” Kramer said. “As well as what was discussed as the favorable termination rule. Very few cases have ever involved this type of situation.”

Kramer said he expects Judge Holland to issue a ruling on the city’s motion to dismiss the case within a short time frame. Marvin Roberts, one of three of the Fairbanks Four who was in attendance at the oral arguments, expressed optimism following the proceeding.

“We just hope for a positive outcome and we just like to thank all of our supporters that got us here,” Roberts said.

The Fairbanks Four are seeking damages from the city for 18 years they spent in prison. Under the 2015 agreement they signed with the state, the men agreed not to sue, but they signed the deal under duress.