Eric Engman/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner via AP
Supporters rally outside the Courthouse during an evidentiary hearing for the Fairbanks Four to try to prove their innocence October 5, 2015 at the Rabinowitz Courthouse in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Four, George Frese, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent and Marvin Roberts were convicted in the killing of 15-year old John Hartman 18 years ago. Roberts was released on parole this summer, the other three men remain in jail.

Fairbanks Four Could Be Released If They Agree to Not Sue State

Richard Walker
12/15/15

After nearly 20 years behind bars, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent could be released from prison soon. They and a fourth man, Marvin Roberts, who was paroled in June, were convicted for a fatal assault they have repeatedly said they didn’t commit. Under the terms of the deal, the crime would be removed from their records.

In a proposed settlement filed by attorneys for the state and the four men, December 11 in Fairbanks Superior Court, the state would dismiss its 1997 indictment against the men, and Frese, Pease and Vent would be immediately freed.

However, in the agreement, the state contests “the factual and legal assertions” made by the men in their petition to have their convictions overturned, including “allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct,” and “reserves the ability to file charges in the future and seek a retrial only if substantial new evidence of guilt is discovered.”

The agreement states, “The parties have not reached agreement as to [the men’s] actual guilt or innocence” and nothing in the agreement “shall be deemed an admission of liability or responsibility on the part” of the state or the four men.

Under the proposed agreement, the men would withdraw “all claims of actual innocence and all claims and allegations … of police and prosecutorial misconduct,” although in a follow-up notice filed by the Fairbanks Four’s attorneys, the men “strongly disagree” with the withdrawal-of-innocence-claims provision and “have maintained, and will always maintain, that they are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.”

The men would agree not to sue any state or local agencies for “malicious prosecution, wrongful imprisonment, prosecutorial misconduct, legal malpractice, violation or deprivation of rights civil or constitutional, personal injury, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, emotional or mental suffering, emotional distress or trauma,” as well as “past or future loss of wages [and] loss of earning capacity.”

Both sides agree to make no claims “for costs, attorneys’ fees, restitution, or other expenses.”

On December 11, Superior Court Judge Paul R. Lyle gave attorneys 10 days to show him how he has the legal authority to free the men “after prosecutors neither pardoned them nor offered clemency,” the Associated Press reported.

Some supporters say the agreement would end a long nightmare for the now middle-aged men, who were teens when they were arrested and charged with the October 11, 1997 fatal assault of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman. The Alaska Innocence Project, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and others contend the men were victims of a racially-tinged rush to judgment by police and prosecutors. Frese, Roberts and Vent are Alaska Native, Pease is Native American.

In the course of their investigation, police obtained two confessions, later recanted, using a controversial interrogation method; and testimony, later recanted, from a witness who identified the four men as being involved in another robbery that evening, although he had been drinking and he saw the robbery from 550 feet away, in the dark.

Alibi witnesses placed the four men, teenagers at the time, at different places the evening of the fatal assault. No DNA evidence or other physical evidence linked the men to the crime. Two of the men rejected plea bargains in return for testimony against the others. Frese’s requests to take a lie detector test were rejected by the state, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

Following their convictions, Pease was sentenced to 77 years, Frese 75, Vent 39, and Roberts 33.

The four filed a petition to have their convictions overturned after a man serving life sentences for two drug-related 2002 murders wrote a detailed confession that he and some friends were responsible for Hartman’s death, as well as information from another source that corroborates the confession. A five-week evidentiary hearing took place in October and November.

Reaction to the proposed agreement was mixed.

A professor at University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law told the Associated Press the proposed settlement is unusual. In freeing the men while contesting “the factual and legal assertions” in their petition to have their convictions overturned, “It's like the state is trying to have its cake and eat it too," the professor said.

One reader of the Alaska Dispatch wrote in reaction to the proposed agreement, “Wow. So let me see if I have this right: in order to walk, they all have to sign an agreement that says they won't sue for being wrongfully imprisoned. However, the state still upholds their convictions, and there's no adjudication of 'actual innocence,' which was the point of the entire hearing for the whole month of November, eh? … [The state doesn’t] want to pay for the cost of their mistake … They were wrong. The four are innocent, and they know it.”

April Monroe, a blogger and Fairbanks Four advocate, said there’s been “such a visceral reaction” to the proposed agreement. “There are people who think it’s unfair, and it is,” she said. But from the men’s standpoint, a court decision on their petition to have their convictions overturned would likely be followed by appeals, which could mean more time in the system.

At this point, “It’s just a matter of getting home,” Monroe said. “They could stay in and demand compensation” after being exonerated. “But they’ve already missed 17 Christmases; how much are you going to sell that 18th Christmas for? Time is priceless.”

ICTMN FAIRBANKS FOUR COVERAGE

2015

November 30, 2015: Fairbanks Four hearings over, now wait begins

November 2, 2015: Fairbanks Four ‘upbeat’ as evidentiary hearings near conclusion

October 19, 2015: Alaska’s Reluctant Pursuit of Justice: The Fairbanks Four

October 6, 2015: ‘Fairbanks Four’ Seek Truth, Freedom As Evidentiary Hearing Begins

June 29, 2015: Inmate’s Confession Promises New Trials for Fairbanks Four, Roberts Paroled

March 17, 2015: Battle Continues In Effort to Keep Statement Sealed and Fairbanks Four Behind Bars

2014

October 23, 2014: Evidentiary Hearing Scheduled November 10 in Fairbanks Four Case

May 19, 2014: Assistant A.G. Doesn’t Oppose Evidentiary Hearing in Fairbanks Four Case

April 28, 2014: Fairbanks Four Hoping New Evidence Leads to Overturned Convictions

2013

December 5, 2013: 7 Questions With Adrienne Bachman, Fairbanks Four Reviewing Prosecutor

November 17, 2013: Set Them Free? Senator Calls for Swift Review of Fairbanks Four Case

November 8, 2013: New Hope for the ‘Fairbanks Four’

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page

POST A COMMENT

Comments

RossK's picture
RossK
Submitted by RossK on
It seems the attorneys, who wrote this agreement for the state, have never read the fifth amendment to the constitution. How can anyone, who has followed this case, have any respect for the Alaska Court System after this.
1