Fairbanks Four wins appeal, can now sue the city for wrongful conviction

The Associated Press

Updated: George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent were convicted of murder spent 18 years in prison for a crime they did not commit

FAIRBANKS — A federal appeals court has reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by four Fairbanks men who contend they were illegally imprisoned for nearly two decades.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday overturned a lower court ruling that dismissed a lawsuit by the “Fairbanks Four” against the city of Fairbanks, KTVF television reported.

George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent were convicted of murder in the 1997 death of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman. The four men spent 18 years in prison while they asserted their innocence and appealed their convictions.

"I am very happy with the ruling," Roberts told Indian Country Today. "We are one step closer in our lawsuit against the city of Fairbanks."

After a five-week hearing that re-examined the cases in detail, and presented the case that others killed Hartman, the convictions were vacated in December 2015.

The four men sued the city for wrongful imprisonment and said an agreement that led to their release, in which they agreed not to sue, was not legally binding because they were coerced.

U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland ruled against them in October 2018. The men needed to have their criminal convictions invalidated, not simply vacated, before they could sue, he ruled.

The judge referenced a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case that outlined how a defendant in a criminal case must be cleared before seeking monetary damages from prosecutors and police.

In a 2-1 decision, the 9th Circuit Court reversed the dismissal. Appeals judges concluded that the precedent only applies if the plaintiffs face outstanding criminal judgment or pending charges. Because the convictions of the Fairbanks men had been vacated, and their indictments dismissed, the judges ruled that the precedent did not apply.

An attorney for the city of Fairbanks, Matt Singer, said the city was disappointed and may seek reconsideration by the appeals court.

"We respectfully think that the two judges got it wrong and misapplied the law," he said.

Mike Kramer, an attorney for two of the four men, said the decision was great news. "It was a lengthy decision but very well-reasoned." Kramer said.

Attorneys will begin preparing for a jury trial made up of Fairbanks residents in an attempt to get justice for his clients, he said.

Indian Country Today contributed to this report.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

I have been A supporter for these young men from the first day of their arrest, as majority of the native population were! they were innocent and the city of Fairbanks set these young men up from day one, PREJUDICE being a main factor in doing so, sadly these's 4 men suffered and lost their freedom for 18 years because of dirty cops, investigator s, who wanted to solve this case because of angry citizens and the brutal fashion young non-native life was taken, witnesses ignored who willingly offered statements many saw these young men else where through out that evening, as city attorney stated in trial,"Natives will stick together!" Burns memories as if this happened yesterday! Sadly prison population is mainly Native s to this day, many rights violated with NO CHANGE in sight, alone, no body to help them I pray they too prove their innocence as many are wrongfully convicted with prjudicr as the main factor