FAIRBANKS — A federal judge in Fairbanks heard arguments Wednesday over whether a civil lawsuit can proceed against the Fairbanks city government and a group of former Fairbanks police officers for their handling of the 1997 John Hartman murder investigation.
The four men convicted of killing Hartman cumulatively spent more than 70 years in prison while asserting their innocence and filling appeals and other legal challenges. Their convictions were vacated in December 2015 after a five-week hearing that re-examined the convictions in detail and presented the case that a different group of Fairbanks teenagers killed Hartman.
A negotiated agreement specifically barred the men from suing the city or state for their treatment by the Police Department and the district attorney’s office. However, they argue that their agreement not to sue isn’t legally binding because they were coerced due to their imprisonment.
About 30 people attended Wednesday’s hearing. The audience included Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent, three of the four men suing the city. The fourth is George Frese.
After greeting everyone and complimenting one of the attorneys on his bolo tie, U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland started the hearing by telling the
attorneys he was particularly interested in the issue of whether the state court declared the criminal convictions “invalid” with the 2015 settlement.
The arguments that followed matched the contours of the public debate — albeit a bit more legal and technical — that’s continued since 2015. That debate is whether the settlement amounts to an exoneration for the four men, known to their supporters as the Fairbanks Four.
Matthew Singer, an Anchorage lawyer representing the Fairbanks city government, argued that a former criminal defendant can’t sue his prosecutors unless his conviction is “favorably terminated” in one of four ways outlined in the 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case of Heck v. Humphrey. A negotiated settlement isn’t on the list, Singer said.
“The (civil) case should be dismissed because it depends on the invalidity of the conviction,” Singer said. “The convictions were not set aside by innocence but rather by an agreement that there was evidence that would warrant a new trial.”
As evidence to some lingering validity of the convictions, Singer pointed to a stipulation signed by the Fairbanks Four’s lawyers that agreed there was “probable cause” for the original criminal case that Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent killed Hartman. The seven lawyers who signed the stipulation were not in jail and therefore cannot claim they were coerced, Singer said.
New York civil rights attorney Anna Benvenutti Hoffmann came to Fairbanks to make the arguments for the Fairbanks Four’s case.
Hoffmann said the rules from the Heck case would have kept her clients from suing while they were still convicted. The point of the Heck rules are to keep people with convictions from making an “end run” around a criminal court and the usual appeals process with collateral civil lawsuits; it doesn’t stop her clients from suing for the simple reason that they are no longer convicted, she said.
“As a matter of comity — deference to the state court system — state court has jurisdiction over the conviction while it still exists,” she said, explaining her argument in an interview after the hearing. “It (the Heck precedent) is not a bar in any way to this wrongful conviction suit, because as everyone in Alaska knows, they were exonerated. They were let out based on evidence of innocence. They’re not in prison anymore. They’re not treated as felons by the state of Alaska anymore.”
A third lawyer at the hearing, Washington attorney Joesph Evans, represented former Fairbanks police officers James Geier, Aaron Ring, Chris Nolan and Dave Kendrick. He argued the case should be dismissed for a different reason — that it doesn’t name as a defendant the state of Alaska despite its central role in prosecuting the Fairbanks Four case. Under the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a state can’t be sued in federal court, so Evans argued a better venue for this case would be state court, where the state government can be sued.
Court rules don’t give Holland a specific deadline for when he needs to rule on whether to dismiss the case.
Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors