By John Dougherty
Published: Nov. 25, 2020 at 4:07 PM AKST
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) – The City of Fairbanks has appealed a 9th Circuit Court ruling to the United States Supreme Court. In January of this year, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that a group of men known as the ‘Fairbanks Four’ should be allowed to sue the city for wrongful conviction. The decision overturned a lower court ruling that prevented such a suit. After the city lost the appeal, they filed a motion for the matter to be heard en banc, or by the entire 9th Circuit, not just a three judge panel. The court declined their motion, prompting the city to file an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Mike Kramer is representing George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent, known as the ‘Fairbanks Four.’ The men were convicted of the murder John Hartman, a teen who was beaten to death in Fairbanks in 1997. After the four had spent nearly 20 years in jail, a judge vacated their conviction as part of a deal made with the State after new evidence was found that the men claimed was proof of their innocence.
The group is now seeking to be allowed to file a wrongful conviction lawsuit against the City, something City attorneys argue is not allowed under the Heck v. Humphries Supreme Court ruling. A district court judge sided with the city and Kramer appealed the case to the 9th Circuit Court who ruled in his favor.
Kramer said he had hoped the process would not have taken this long, “When we had filed the complaint in December of 2017, obviously we expected at that time the City to put up a vigorous defense, which they certainly have. I had hoped that we would be farther along in the lawsuit than we are now three years later.”
In the City’s petition, they argue that some of the U.S. Circuit Courts have held that there is no reason to let prisoners file lawsuits if their charges are vacated, while other courts have ruled they can. The City is asking the Supreme Court to rule on the matter to clear it up.
“Statistically the odds are against them, but they have raised a strong argument that because there is a split in the circuits over this issue, that it is something the Supreme Court should step in and decide once and for all,” Kramer said.
He went on to say that he hopes that the Supreme Court will deny their request so they can move forward with the lawsuit.
“Three years in, we are disappointed to be where we are at, but the ‘Fairbanks Four’ have certainly understood the time issues involved in resolving something in court and they are very patient. They have learned patience,” Kramer said.
The next step would be getting permission to even file a lawsuit. One of the conditions of their early release was that they wouldn’t sue the city if they were released. Kramer said they will have to get that overturned next. He said he expects the city to fight that issue as well.
Kramer said he is most interested in getting justice for the four men, and even encouraged the City of Fairbanks to prosecute who he called “the real murders” to help bring closure to the case.
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