Circuit Court justices hears Fairbanks Four appeal

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 panel of three 9th Circuit Court justices heard arguments Friday morning in Fairbanks in the appeal of a federal civil rights suit filed against the city of Fairbanks. Four Native men, known as the Fairbanks Four, appealed an October 2018 lower court judge’s dismissal of their case, which alleges police misconduct in the investigation of a 1997 murder.

George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent allege racial bias-driven police misconduct, including coercion of false confessions and fabrication of evidence, lead to them being wrongfully convicted of the beating death of John Hartman.

Evidence aired during a 2015 evidentiary hearing pointed to another group of local men being responsible for the killing, and under a settlement agreement, the state vacated the Fairbanks Four convictions.  

The deal allowed three of the four men, who were still in prison, to walk free, but stipulated that the original convictions were lawfully obtained, and that the four would not sue the state or city for damages.

The men sued the city regardless, contending they signed the agreement under duress to avoid further prison time while the case played out in court.  

Last fall’s ruling dismissing their suit, maintained that the 2015 agreement did not meet a civil rights suit precedent that the prior case be “favorably resolved.” City of Fairbanks attorney Matt Singer argued for the justices to maintain that legal bar.

“The requirement to bring a malicious prosecution claim is to first show that the criminal case resulted in a favorable termination, that shows innocence,” Singer said.

Singer says the settlement falls short of that, but Fairbanks Four attorney Anna Benvenutti Hoffman counters that it effectively wipes the legal slate clean.

”There’s no question. If you go to the state of Alaska website and you look up their convictions, they’re vacated. They’re not in effect anymore. They don’t have any collateral consequences.”

The three 9th Circuit Court justices could take up to a year to rule on the appeal, a decision that can be appealed up to the 9th Circuit’s full panel of judges.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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