One of the Fairbanks Four sues the city over alleged civil rights violations

One of the Fairbanks Four is suing the city and four Fairbanks police officers over allegations that his civil rights were violated by police during their investigation of a 1997 murder, which led to a trial and conviction of the plaintiff and three other defendants in 1999.

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Marvin Roberts claims in a suit filed Thursday in Federal Court in Fairbanks that the four officers falsely accused him and his three co-defendants of the murder of 15-year-old John Hartman. The suit claims the four officers built their case on phony evidence, and that they and corrupt city officials disregarded evidence that incriminated others and instead pushed for conviction of the four defendants, who came to be known as the Fairbanks Four.

“There’s basic safeguards that the police and others involved in the system,” Michael Kramer, Roberts’s attorney, said. “And some of those are basic investigatory techniques that don’t just focus on a single individual or a single suspect.”

Kramer says the lawsuit also asks the judge to release Roberts from the terms of a agreement the city offered the Fairbanks Four in 2015, after another man confessed to the killing. The city offered to vacate charges against the Four, who by then had spent 18 years behind bars, but in exchange, the four men had to agree to withdraw their claims of prosecutorial misconduct. The agreement also required them not to sue the state, the city of Fairbanks or any of the officers or others involved in the case.

“It was an inherently coercive agreement that he entered into it, although the city’s going to try and hide behind it,” Kramer said. “We think that the judge will find that he was under extreme duress, that the agreement was coerced and that it just can’t be enforced as a matter of public policy.”

Kramer says if the judge agrees, Roberts will seek damages that will enable him to recover some of the income he was unable to earn while behind bars.

“He lost out on the most productive years of his life,” Kramer said. “And while he can’t get those years back, one thing we can do to this case is make the city accept responsibility and hopefully provide some compensation for him, in the end.”

City officials declined to comment on the case today, claiming they hadn’t had a chance to review the complaint.

The other three defendants are George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent. Frese and Vent are Athabascan, and Pease is also Native American. The lawsuit alleges prejudice by investigators and other officials against indigenous people played a role in the conviction.

A hearing on the lawsuit has not yet been scheduled.

Correction: This story previously stated that Kevin Pease was Athabascan and that Eugene Vent was Native American. It is, in fact, the other way around. It has been corrected. 

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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