AFN Potlatch

The Fairbanks Four, from left, George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent and Kevin Pease, are introduced by Shirley Lee at the 2016 AFN Welcome Potlatch. Matthew Putman/News-Miner intern

FAIRBANKS—The men of the Fairbanks Four have until May 14 to file an amended joint complaint against the city of Fairbanks and others in federal court.

The four — Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, George Frese and Eugene Vent — are suing the city and one current and three former police officers for wrongful imprisonment for the 1997 killing of 15-year-old John Hartman in Fairbanks. Roberts filed his own lawsuit on December 7 and the other three filed a combined suit eleven days later.

Because the language of the suits is similar and often identical in parts, all four men will file a single amended complaint for pretrial purposes, as ordered by Presiding Judge Russel Holland. Each plaintiff still retains the right to ask for an individual trail if the case proceeds that far.

According to a stipulation and joint report filed in the court, "Counsel for all parties agree that these cases should be consolidated for the purposes of dispositive motions and discovery."

Defendants must respond to the amended complaint by June 4 and will almost assuredly file a motion to dismiss the case. A subsequent response from the plaintiffs will be due by July 2, and the defendants' final reply due August 6.

The defendants' motion to dismiss will be based largely on a release agreement between the state of Alaska and Roberts, Pease, Frese and Vent.

At the time of the agreement, Roberts was out on parole and the other three were still incarcerated. Rather than wait for the results of a lengthy post-conviction relief case, the four signed an agreement that released them from jail. In return, all four agreed not to sue the city, state or any individuals involved in the case.

If the motion to dismiss is denied for any reason, the defendants must provide an answer to the lawsuits and the court case will proceed.

"It's typical that, in a complicated civil case, that an institutional defendant or municipality would file a motion to dismiss instead of an answer," said Michael Kramer, a lawyer representing Roberts and Vent.

In the original lawsuits, the four contend the release agreement was coerced and a violation of their civil rights. They want a judge to rule the agreement is unenforceable and to order a subsequent trial by jury.

Defendants maintain the agreement is binding, and Fairbanks City Attorney Paul Ewers hopes the motion to dismiss will constitute "check and checkmate."

Large teams of local, state and national lawyers have been brought on to represent both sides.

The men who became known as the Fairbanks Four were convicted in 1999 of beating to death Hartman. The four each spent 18 years in prison.

At the time of the release agreement, a Superior Court judge was weighing evidence that a different group of men killed Hartman. The judge's ruling was expected in about eight months and carried with it the possibility of a new trial.

Instead of waiting months for the ruling, and potentially years for a new trial, the four signed the agreement to secure their release from prison.

Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcity.