FAIRBANKS - The city and state of Alaska should consider compensating the Fairbanks Four for the 18 years they spent behind bars, outgoing city of Fairbanks Mayor John Eberhart told the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.
Eberhart made the comments during his welcoming remarks at the convention on Thursday morning, focusing on how the city has worked to repair its relationship with Alaska Natives.
“A major issue that caused a rift for many years in our community was the Fairbanks Four,” he said. “There are serious questions about the case and the truth, and I urge the state and city to consider an ex gratia — or voluntary payment — to the Fairbanks Four.”
The statement received a loud applause from the convention, which would later recognize Alaska Innocence Project director and attorney Bill Oberly for his work on the case with the Denali Award, the organization's highest award for non-Natives.
Last year, the state signed an agreement to release the men known as the Fairbanks Four—Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent—after 18 years in prison for the 1997 murder of teenager John Hartman. Three of the men are Alaska Native.
The agreement came after a contentious, multi-week hearing where Oberly and other attorneys argued new evidence proved the four men were innocent and that the original arrests and convictions were hastily reached and racially motivated.
While the agreement freed the men in time to be home for Christmas, it prevented them from seeking any sort of compensation from anyone involved in any part of the original lawsuits or later efforts to prove the mens' innocence.
The issue of compensation has stayed alive since the agreement was reached last year, but has gained little traction in the Alaska Legislature. A proposal was put forward to establish a formal compensation system for people who are wrongfully incarcerated, but it failed to reach a vote.
The matter also came up during Oberly's acceptance of the Denali Award.
Will Mayo, a former president of Tanana Chiefs Conference, spoke during the acceptance.
"Justice will not be served until there is just compensation," he said. "they signed an agreement not to pursue it, but I didn't sign it. I think that fairness and justice will come the day that they are compensated for those 18 years of incarceration."
Oberly didn't address compensation himself, but said the case proved the power of a community united behind a common cause.
"This group of Native Alaskans roared and justice was done," he said. "I learned from this that when you come together in a common cause—be it a wrongful conviction, wrongs that are done to the community—you can get things done."
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.