FAIRBANKS — The city of Fairbanks has not yet been formally served in a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by Marvin Roberts, one of the Fairbanks Four imprisoned nearly two decades for the 1997 beating death of 15-year-old John Hartman. Along with the city of Fairbanks, three former and one current Fairbanks Police Department officers have been named as defendants.
When served, the city will have 20 days to answer each one of the suit’s charges. In the meantime, Fairbanks City Attorney Paul Ewers has been reviewing a courtesy copy of the lawsuit provided by Roberts’ attorney, Michael Kramer. Roberts maintains he was wrongfully imprisoned and is seeking compensation.
After allegations and evidence that another group of men may have been responsible for Hartman’s murder, the Fairbanks Four signed a settlement with the state in December 2015. The settlement erased the four’s 1999 murder convictions and immediately released three of them from prison. In exchange, the four agreed not to sue the state, the city of Fairbanks or any individuals involved in the case.
At the time of the settlement, Roberts was on parole while the other three — George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent — were in jail awaiting results from a post-conviction relief case which carried the possibility of a new trial. Instead of waiting months for results of the relief case and potentially years if a new trial were ordered, the four — who have long claimed innocence — signed the settlement.
Kramer said Roberts was victimized by the criminal justice system and deprived of his basic civil rights. The lawsuit seeks a judge’s declaration that the release-dismissal agreement is unenforceable and calls for a subsequent jury trial.
If a judge rules that the lawsuit can proceed, the city of Fairbanks will uphold their duty to defend employees and their actions taken while performing official duties, Ewers said.
“We don’t think there’s any misconduct on the Fairbanks Police Department, the city as a whole and the city employees.”
In the lawsuit, Kramer alleges misconduct by the Police Department through at least 2011.
When asked if the city’s defense of the Police Department employees equates to a belief that the Fairbanks Four were rightfully convicted, Ewers said it’s not so black-and-white.
“Who do you ask that question to? You ask that question to the city of Fairbanks: The administration’s voice is the mayor, the official policy maker is the city council. There’s no way I can tell you what the city believes or doesn’t believe.”
Without extensive review of the lawsuit, Ewers didn’t say much about specific charges, but he said he expects the city “will deny many, many of the allegations.” Ewers also took issue with the validity of some charges. “There’s some allegations made that aren’t fact based,” he said.
The debated allegations concern a group of five alternative murder suspects: William Holmes, Jason Wallace, Shelmar Johnson, Rashad Brown and Marquez Pennington. The lawsuit states that all five men “brutally beat and kicked him (Hartman) to death.”
Kramer said Holmes and Wallace for years admitted to being Hartman’s actual killers. Ewers disagrees, saying their words amounted to accusations, not confessions.
“He (Holmes) actually accused the others of doing it. But he said, ‘I didn’t do it. I didn’t see it,’” Ewers said.
Some charges could be particularly difficult to answer, according to Ewers, because each charge contains multiple elements and one aspect can’t be denied while accepting another. Ewers and Kramer both said the first issue to address is if the lawsuit can proceed.
“Will the judge let him (Roberts) out of the signed waiver? And if he does, where will that put him?” Ewers said. “If the judge says ‘No, it’s binding,’ then that’s the end.”
Both parties will have the opportunity to appeal the judge’s decision.
Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcity.