FAIRBANKS — About 40 protesters held signs and chanted “return PFDs to exonerees” at a rally Saturday evening at Golden Heart Plaza. They were calling on the Alaska Senate to take up a stalled bill that would pay past Alaska Permanent Fund dividends to former state inmates — most visibly, the men known as the Fairbanks Four — whose convictions are later reversed.
The bill, HB127, passed the Alaska House, 38-1, in April 2017, but hasn’t seen any movement since.
Saturday’s rally was a last-ditch effort organized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska and the Native Movement organization to pressure the state Senate to take up the bill before it adjourns.
Misty Nickoli, operations manager for the Fairbanks-based Native Movement, spoke to the audience through a bull horn. She said that the bill is important to past and future people wrongfully convicted in Alaska.
“This has everything to do with each one of us. It could happen to anyone. It could happen to our family members,” she said.
“We need to have a law created to protect them when the state says, ‘Whoops, my bad, y’all are innocent.’”
A March vote to discharge the bill from the Senate Affairs Committee failed, 13-4, with no votes from all the Interior senators on the committee: Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, John Coghill, R-North Pole and Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks.
The bill was inspired by the Fairbanks Four, the four men who spent most of the last 20 years in jail after being convicted of murder in the 1997 death of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman. The four — George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent — were freed in 2015 under a settlement with the state, but were not given compensation for their time in jail, including the PFDs for all the years they were imprisoned.
Under Alaska’s current dividend rules, people are ineligible for the dividend on years that they spend any time incarcerated for a felony or for repeated-misdemeanor convictions. The Fairbanks Four could receive $103,000 if the bill became law.
Roberts and Vent both attended Saturday’s rally and addressed the crowd.
“We got out with no compensation. It hurts after being locked up for so long and not being able to save for our future,” Roberts said. “We’ve got to start over. HB127 will help us. It’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction. It will help us get on our feet.”
Luke Hopkins, former mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, addressed the rally and singled out Coghill, his opponent in the 2016 state Senate election.
“Justice needs to be given to the Fairbanks Four. I say it’s shameful what I heard as reasons why that bill probably won’t be supported and passed in the senate,” Hopkins said. “Shame on you, John Coghill.”
Coghill told the News-Miner earlier this month that he probably wouldn’t support the bill if it included the Fairbanks Four because he felt it went against the settlement the men signed in 2015 in exchange for their release. Coghill couldn’t be reached for additional comment Saturday.
Although it’s inspired by the Fairbanks Four, the applicability of the law to the four is complicated by what the state considers their lack of exoneration. After the 2015 agreement, the then-attorney general said the settlement meant no wrongdoing by police or prosecutors was done in the trials that convicted the Fairbanks Four.
Shirley Lee, a longtime supporter of the Fairbanks Four, spoke about her frustration with the government’s continued treatment of the case.
“In all my years of working on the Fairbanks Four case, not one person has ever stepped forward from behind the legal veil that’s known as liability. Not one person has completely stepped forward from a position of authority to say, ‘Yes, we messed up. Yes, we were wrong. We’re sorry.’ Those words and those actions have never occurred.”
In the 2015 agreement, prosecutors allowed for the convictions to be vacated and dismissed the charges. As part of the deal, Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent agreed that they wouldn’t seek damages from the state or city.
The Fairbanks Four are challenging the enforceability of that settlement, arguing it was coerced because they were in jail and had an unequal bargaining position. They are suing the city of Fairbanks, as well as past and current police officers, in federal court.
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Correction: This article has been changed to reflect the following correction.
Sunday's story "Fairbanks Four supporters rally for stalled PFD bill" incorrectly reported the date of an earlier Sen. John Coghill interview with the Daily News-Miner. It was earlier this month, not last year.