FAIRBANKS — When the Fairbanks Four left prison after 18 years behind bars for a murder they said they didn’t commit, they left with little but their freedom.
The settlement from the state doesn’t come with financial compensation and prevents the men — George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent — from pursuing civil lawsuits against the state, any organization or any person involved in the original trials that convicted them of the murder of John Hartman.
Bill Oberly, the executive director of the Alaska Innocence Project, said the four men simply wanted to get out of prison and compensation wasn’t a top priority in signing the settlement. But he said they’ll be facing challenges as they re-enter society and the community support they are seeing now won’t last forever.
“They have no job skills, they have no job experience, no savings, no Social Security, no pension,” he said. “They’re out there with basically nothing to show for the last 18 years except for a hole in their resume.”
Although the settlement cuts off opportunities to pursue compensation through the courts, Oberly pointed to other states that have made amends for wrongful imprisonment through other ways.
“There have been exonerations in other states where they have passed a special payment to people who were wrongfully convicted and released,” he said.
But whether or not the Legislature or governor decide to add anything to the already troubled state budget will be decided during the legislative session, which is set to start in less than a month.
There’s also the issue of whether or not the state views the convictions as wrongful imprisonment.
The state, in both the settlement and further statements, stands behind the original jury verdicts and admits no wrongdoing in the convictions. The state’s position has been that it’s not clear, given the state of the evidence today, that the men would be convicted if the case were retried.
The state has sparred with Oberly over his use of the term “exoneration.” Attorney General Craig Richards said the settlement that led to the four’s release was not an exoneration and repeated that the original convictions were “rightfully and fairly obtained, valid and proper.”
Oberly said he sees it differently. The Alaska Innocence Project spearheaded the latest effort to overturn the convictions of the Fairbanks Four, arguing that the convictions were reached through misconduct by investigators and prosecutors.
“The state put them away for 18 years for crimes they didn’t commit,” Oberly said. “Is Alaska the kind of state that will do that and leave those individuals with nothing? That’s the question the state of Alaska has to ask.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Walker said the office hasn’t received any compensation requests and it’s too early to comment on potential legislation.
It was the same message from Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, who co-chairs the budget-setting House Finance Committee.
“I have not seen any emails or anything on any movement about that,” he said.
Thompson said he hadn’t considered the issue and said he hasn’t taken a stance on compensation, but he said it will be a challenge in the already tough fiscal situation the state’s facing.
“Eighteen years, the major working part of their lives, but it’s a tough one to come up with money when the state is broke,” he said. “I really don’t have an opinion yet, but it’s going to be hard to come up with additional money when we’re cutting schools and everything else.”
There is a bill in the Legislature that could address this issue, at least for cases the state agrees are, in fact, wrongful imprisonment.
Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Scott Kawasaki’s House Bill 55 would give the wrongfully convicted up to $50,000 per year behind bars with a cap of $2 million, but it would require the attorney general to approve the deal and require that the conviction be “vacated or reversed because the person was not guilty” or was pardoned. The legislation doesn’t mention convictions that are vacated through the settlement process.
The bill moved out of the State Affairs Committee during the last session and is in the House Judiciary Committee. Kawasaki said he’s researching ways that bill could be amended to be retroactive for the Fairbanks Four.
“In light of the Fairbanks Four, this shows more than ever that we need some sort of statute to allow for wrongful conviction compensation,” he said. “I feel it’s the right thing to do. ... I think the state owes something to them and all victims of wrongful convictions.”
Kawasaki said he believes the Fairbanks Four were wrongfully convicted and the Legislature should look for a way to make things right for the men.
“No amount of monetary compensation can replace the 18 years that were lost by the Fairbanks Four,” he said, “but it is a way to get them a good start forward into their lives and trying to get them back and settled into their new life.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.