FAIRBANKS—The Fairbanks Four are free as 5:15 p.m. Thursday evening under terms of a negotiated settlement.
The four men, who've long fought their conviction for the 1997 killing of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman, had their murder convictions erased under a deal that's similar but not identical to one proposed last week.
Marvin Roberts was released on parole earlier this year, but the other three men — George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent — had been in jail since their arrests in October 1997.
After a final hearing at the Rabinowitz Courthouse on Thursday they went to Fairbanks Correctional Center one final time before they were released. The men went immediately to a celebration at the David Salmon Tribal Hall.
Terms of the deal
The settlement came after a six-hour closed-door negotiation Thursday on the fifth floor of the Rabinowitz Courthouse with retired Superior Court Judge Niesje Steinkruger, who presided over Frese's 1999 trial in Anchorage.
Friends, family members and supporters of the men began assembling outside the locked courtroom by mid-morning Thursday, taking turns to peek through a crack in the door to look into the court. The doors to the courtroom opened to the public at about 4 p.m.
Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle, who presided over a five-week evidentiary hearing in the case this fall, explained the terms of the deal in a 20-minute public hearing. The settlement cuts short what would have been an eight-month wait for Lyle make rulings based on the evidentiary hearing.
Under the deal, Lyle granted the men a new trial, based on an understanding from both sides that there was enough new evidence in the case that he might have ordered a new trial if he were to eventually rule in the evidentiary hearing.
The state then agreed to dismiss charges and Lyle ordered the men's "immediate and unconditional release."
In return, the men agreed to withdraw their claim of prosecutorial misconduct and to not sue the state or the city of Fairbanks.
Unlike a deal proposed last week, Lyle said he has the legal authority to approve this deal and that in fact he's obligated to accept it.
"This court would violate the separation of powers (doctrine) in any attempt to stop it," he said. "This is a lawful settlement."
The 52 people who fit into the courtroom — almost all supporters of Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent — burst into cheers as soon the hearing ended. A similarly sized group waited outside and the crowd began to sing and dance as the news spread.
"It was what we were looking of from the very start. The convictions are done away with. They have no convictions and they're free. It's what we were looking for," said Bill Oberly the CEO of the Alaska Innocence Project in an interview after the hearing.
Oberly filed the 2013 post-conviction relief lawsuit that led to Thursday's resolution.
In their case, attorneys for the four men challenged the validity of the evidence presented at their 1999 jury trials. They also presented an alternate theory of Hartman's killing, that the boy was killed by a different group of then-teenagers — William Z. Homes, Jason Wallace, Rashan Brown, Marquez Pennington and Shelmar Johnson.
The exoneration effort's legal team was bolstered by attorneys from the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney and attorney Whitney Glover from the state Office of Public Advocacy.
The parties respond
Lyle asked to hear from a representative of the murder victim before he accepted the deal. Hartman's older brother Sean "Chris" Kelly spoke to the court by phone.
“I feel like my family is being wronged,” he said.
Kelly said he believes the four men are guilty and that he doesn't understand the rationale for the agreement.
"If they’re innocent — if you believe that all of a sudden now — I don’t see why you could even justify doing this to them. And if they’re guilty, I don’t see how you can justify making a deal,” he said.
Alaska Attorney General Craig Richards represented the state at the hearing.
"I hope that this opportunity will allow conclusion and finality and will allow the community to heal," he said after the hearing.
The deal, he emphasized, "is not an exoneration."
"The parties have agreed that original convictions were rightfully and fairly obtained, valid and proper," he said. "There was no wrongdoing by the prosecution, by law enforcement or by witnesses in the original case."
However, he said because of evidence presented at last month's hearing, there's a significant question of whether a jury in 2015 would convict the four men.
The settlement has been in the works for a month, Richards said. He described the settlement as only "procedurally" different from one reached last week.
"A lawyer could spend two hours like we did today arguing ... but at the end of the day, the terms are virtually identical," he said.
The attorney general left the issue of whether the Hartman case will receive more investigation to law enforcement.
Fairbanks Police Chief Randall Aragon attended the hearing. He said in a later interview that he wouldn't rule out further investigation of the Hartman killing. But his investigators agreed with state prosecutors that there wasn't enough evidence pointing to the five alternate suspects named in this case, he said.
"My department has never said we've overlooked any of the suspects," he said. "We're not doing any more investigatory work unless something ever popped up that became very fruitful.
"We didn't see — along with the prosecution — that anything else was viable to pursue, because we would be pursuing it," he said. "I wouldn't hesitate to pursue anything different."
Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors. Staff writers Weston Morrow, Casey Grove and Dorothy Chomicz contributed to this report.