AFN Potlatch

The Fairbanks Four, from left, George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent and Kevin Pease. Matthew Putman/News-Miner intern

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court ruling that barred the Fairbanks Four from suing the city of Fairbanks for wrongful imprisonment in the 1997 killing of a 15-year-old John Hartman.

The panel, in a 2-1 decision, said the lawsuit brought by the four men — Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent and George Frese — could proceed even though their convictions were vacated in a 2015 agreement with the state in which they agreed not to sue the city or state for their treatment by the Fairbanks Police Department and the district attorney’s office.

The four men together spent more than 70 years in prison for their 1999 convictions of killing Hartman, who was found severely beaten at the corner of Barnette Street and 9th Avenue on Oct. 11, 1997. Hartman died the next day. Roberts, Pease, Vent and Frese were arrested within 36 hours of the discovery of Hartman on the street corner.

The four pleaded not guilty to murder and assault charges on Oct. 21 and were convicted in separate trials in 1999.

In 2015, however, a five-week hearing in Fairbanks Superior Court was held regarding the claims of another man, William Z. Holmes, that it was he and several friends who killed Hartman. Roberts, Pease, Vent and Frese reached the settlement agreement with the state before the judge was able to rule, however.

Pease, Vent and Frese were quickly released from prison following the agreement; Roberts was already out on parole at the time. Under the agreement, the court vacated the convictions and dismissed the criminal indictments against all four men.

The four sued the city of Fairbanks and four police officers in federal court in 2017, claiming civil rights violations through malicious prosecution and wrongful imprisonment. They argued that the agreement with the state was coerced — that it was the only way they could get of prison — and that therefore a court should invalidate the agreement.

An Anchorage district court judge dismissed the lawsuit in October 2018, ruling that the men needed to have their criminal convictions invalidated before they could sue the city and its police officers.

The majority of the panel of 9th Circuit judges disagreed, finding in a ruling dated Wednesday, that a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Heck v. Humphrey did not bar the four men from pursuing their claims.

The ruling summary contained in the 51-page ruling, which includes a dissenting opinion from the third judge, reads as follows:

"The panel held that where all convictions underlying §1983 [civil rights] claims are vacated and no outstanding criminal judgments remain, Heck does not bar plaintiffs from seeking relief under §1983. The panel held that because all convictions in this case were vacated and the underlying indictments ordered dismissed, there remained no outstanding criminal judgment nor any charges pending against plaintiffs.

"The absence of a criminal judgment here rendered the Heck bar inapplicable; the plain language of the Supreme Court’s decision in Heck required the existence of a conviction in order for a § 1983 suit to be barred.'

The 9th Circuit panel reversed the district court ruling and sent the case back for further proceedings.

City officials did not respond to a request for comment by deadline Wednesday.

Contact Editor Rod Boyce at 459-7585. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMeditor.