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Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

The Fairbanks Four, who were aged 17 to 20 when they were arrested in 1997 in a teenager’s killing, got a step closer to making their case in court for compensation for their 18-year wrongful imprisonment.

Potentially millions of dollars are at stake for Athabascans George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent and Kevin Pease, Crow.

Friday, the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an earlier decision by a three-judge panel that allowed the Fairbanks Four’s lawsuit against the city of Fairbanks to proceed. The case stems from the arrest of the four young men for the beating death of John Hartman in Fairbanks. Their sentences ranged from 33 to 79 years.

In 2012, a man serving time for another murder confessed to the crime. Three years later, the Fairbanks Four were released from prison, but only after signing an agreement saying they would not sue over the investigation and prosecution that led to their wrongful convictions.

Because they could be released only if they signed the agreement, they said their signatures were coerced and filed for compensation. They lost the first round, which was appealed to the 9th Circuit.

A three-judge panel ruled in favor of the Fairbanks Four earlier this year, reversing a lower court’s dismissal of the case. The city of Fairbanks appealed for an “en banc,” or full court, hearing. The 9th Circuit declined its request last week.

Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease and George Frese, also known as The Fairbanks Four, celebrate their first day together as free men, Dec. 17, at the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall in Fairbanks.

Anna Benvenutti Hoffmann of Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, a civil rights law firm in New York, said the plaintiffs’ attorneys are ready to get back to the main objective: proving there was “massive misconduct in the investigation, and it was racially motivated."

Hoffman said, “As explained in the allegations, in the complaint, there was coercion and misconduct by the officers in the investigation."

That kind of pressure can often lead to false confessions, she said. “It’s a common form of police misconduct to — whether it's tunnel vision or they think they have the right person, or they just, they don't care whether it's the right person or not, they just want to close the case, officers will violate the Constitution.”

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Huffman said, unfortunately, this type of misconduct has been going on for decades, and police are rarely criminally prosecuted.

“A lot of times they're not disciplined. They're not fired. But civil rights attorneys can bring suits and try to actually expose the misconduct, whether anybody in power wants to admit it or not, and to, you know, get some justice, some compensation for the people who've been victimized.”

Hoffman said a jury ultimately would decide whether compensation is due and set the amount, but the award for her clients could be in the millions or tens of millions of dollars.

Some juries have awarded hundreds of millions of dollars.

“That's what you see when juries are actually asked to value that amount of lost time, that amount of damage to somebody's life, and really it’s, you know, derailing their entire life, and that amount of trauma, the figures are astronomical.”

The city’s lawyers are still going over the court’s decision, said Teal Soden, Fairbanks’ communications director.

“Since the ruling was handed down on Friday, the attorneys need time to review it and to review it with the administration and see what all of our options are going forward. So we don't have a whole lot to say at this point.”

Matt Singer represented the city in the case. Following the January decision by the three-judge panel, he told the Anchorage Daily News the city may take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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