FAIRBANKS—George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent have jointly filed a wrongful imprisonment suit against the city of Fairbanks, three former police officers and one current officer.
Marvin Roberts filed his own similar lawsuit Dec. 7.
Known together as the Fairbanks Four, each of the men spent 18 years in prison for the 1997 beating death of 15-year-old John Hartman in downtown Fairbanks.
The newest, 24-page civil rights lawsuit was filed in federal court in Fairbanks Dec. 18 and lists Vent, Pease and Frese as plaintiffs. All three are also representing themselves, and each asked for the court to waive the $400 filing fee because of his poverty. Much of the suit's language is similar, and at times identical, to the lawsuit filed by Roberts and his attorney, Mike Kramer.
In December 2015, Roberts was on parole while the other three were still in jail. A lengthy post-conviction relief case examining allegations and evidence that another group of men were responsible for Hartman’s death had recently ended, and a judge was expected to rule in the coming months on whether a new trial was warranted. Instead of waiting those months for results of the relief case and potentially years if a new trial were ordered, the four — they have long claimed innocence — signed a settlement with the state.
The settlement erased the four men’s 1999 murder convictions and immediately released the remaining three from prison. In exchange, the four agreed not to sue the state, the city of Fairbanks or any individuals involved in the case.
Vent, Pease and Frese are requesting a judge declare that the release-dismissal agreements are unenforceable and to have the judge order a subsequent trial by jury to award compensatory damages.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Vent said the three will now try to find lawyers.
"We just wanted to try to get everything filed, then we'll figure out representation," he said.
Vent said the three came up with the lawsuit themselves, including researching laws and figuring out which laws relate to the case. "We know the facts, we know what happened," he said.
Vent said he had faith they would eventually be given a new trial following the 2015 hearing but that the only thing that mattered at the time was getting out of prison.
The lawsuit claims that the four's bargaining position was so unbalanced that they had no choice but to sign the settlement, stating, "Plaintiffs' signatures were coerced and involuntary."
Once the city is officially served, it will have 20 days to answer each of the suit's allegations. Fairbanks City Attorney Paul Ewers previously said, in response to Roberts' lawsuit, that Fairbanks has a duty to defend employees' official actions, and he expects to deny "many, many of the allegations."
According to the latest lawsuit, police officers investigating Hartman's murder knew probable cause to prosecute the four didn't exist, acted with malice and "violated plaintiffs' clearly established rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments."
Vent said he hopes to accomplish real justice, not just for the Fairbanks Four, but for Hartman's family.
"People that did wrong will be held accountable, and hopefully, to the Hartman family, that they finally get the closure they deserve," he said. "We did 18 years for something we didn't do. Us being out is not the conclusion to the story that it should be."
Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcity.