Federal judge dismisses Fairbanks Four’s civil case

The Fairbanks Four shortly after their release from prison in December 2015. From left to right: Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease and George Frese. (Photo by Rachel Saylor/Tanana Chiefs Conference)

A federal civil rights suit filed against the city of Fairbanks has been dismissed. U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland’s ruling released Monday, dismisses the suit filed by Native men  known as the Fairbanks Four. George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent allege racial bias drove police misconduct, which included coercion of false confessions and fabrication of evidence. They allege that lead to them being wrongfully convicted of murder.

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City attorney Matt Singer said Holland’s ruling hinges on the fact that the agreement does not meet a key legal stipulation for filing this type of federal civil rights case. New evidence pointing to other suspects in the 1997 beating death of John Hartman led to a 2015 hearing and an agreement with the state. The Fairbanks Four’s convictions were vacated. But the agreement stipulated that the convictions were validly obtained at the time.

“That kind of civil rights claim is not allowed, unless they have first established their innocence before the state criminal court,” Singer said. “And what Judge Holland ruled is that the Fairbanks Four, by settling their case and acknowledging that their original convictions were valid, that they had not obtained a favorable termination.”

Mike Kramer is the Fairbanks Four’s attorney.

“If the question is, was the criminal case favorably resolved? The charges were dismissed and the convictions were vacated. That’s about as favorable as you can get,” Kramer said.

Kramer said the four will appeal to the 9th Circuit Court in hope of getting a more favorable opinion, but notes that’s a two-year process, another legal delay for men who spent 18 years in prison.

“They’re used to justice proceeding very slowly, and — or not proceeding at all,” Kramer said. “And so, you know, they took it well. They understand that this is going to be a long process and certainly not over yet.”

Kramer said the Fairbanks Four case is unique in that most other release dismissal agreements involve charges, not convictions.

The city’s attorney said he expects a similar determination if the case goes before the 9th Circuit.

“Judge Holland followed the precedent set by the United States Supreme Court and by our circuit appellate court,” Singer said. “So I would expect that the 9th Circuit would agree with this decision.”

Holland did not decide on the broader issue of the validity of the 2015 Fairbanks Four agreement with the state, under which the men also agreed not to sue, but now say they signed under duress.