FAIRBANKS—A federal judge has dismissed the Fairbanks Four lawsuit against the city of Fairbanks and several city police officers.
U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland issued an order Monday that throws out the four men's deprivation of liberty, malicious prosecution and other civil claims. Holland stated that the four men needed to have their criminal convictions invalidated before they could sue the police officers and city government who investigated them in the 1997 murder of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman.
"Plaintiffs have not shown that their convictions or sentences have been invalidated. Their convictions have been vacated. But that is not the same thing for purposes of Heck," Holland said, referring to the 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case Heck v. Humphrey that outlines the ways a defendant in a criminal case must be cleared before seeking monetary damages from prosecutors and police investigators.
Mike Kramer, attorney for two of the Fairbanks Four, said Tuesday that the group plans to appeal the dismissal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, a process that will take about two years.
"It was a disappointing day, but the Fairbanks Four are used to being disappointed in court," Kramer said in a phone interview.
The Fairbanks Four are George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent. The four were convicted in the 1997 killing of Hartman on Barnette Street.
The four men cumulatively spent more than 70 years in prison while asserting their innocence and filling appeals and other legal challenges. Their convictions were vacated in December 2015 after a five-week hearing that re-examined the convictions in detail and presented the case that a different group of Fairbanks teenagers killed Hartman.
To get out of jail, the four men signed what they describe in their lawsuit as a "devil's bargain." Facing months or possibly years more in prison while state prosecutors challenged their case, the men agreed to a settlement that let them out of prison immediately under the condition that they agree not to sue the city or state for their treatment by the Fairbanks Police Department and the district attorney’s office.
The men now argue that their agreement not to sue isn’t legally binding because they were coerced due to their imprisonment. They filed their lawsuit against the city in December.
In considering whether to allow the case to proceed, Holland said he applied the Supreme Court standards from the Heck decision, an Indiana manslaughter case. To be clear to sue the city, Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent would have had to have had their conviction "invalidated by a state tribunal." That didn't happen, Holland said. In fact, he said the four men endorsed the validity of their original convictions by signing agreements that stated "the original jury verdicts and judgment of conviction were properly and validly entered based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt."
Kramer said Tuesday that the judge should have given more attention to the issue of whether the settlement was voluntary instead of parsing the words of the agreement.
"Judge Holland focused on that part of the agreement where the Fairbanks Four agreed they were 'validly convicted.' He avoided analyzing whether the agreement in total was an involuntary, coercive agreement, in which case whatever they agreed to would have no weight," Kramer said.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.