By Dan Bross
Published November 8, 2023 at 2:48 PM AKST
April MonroeThe Fairbanks Four (L to R): Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease and George Frese at an event celebrating their exoneration in December 2015.
(Fairbanks, Ak.) Three of the indigenous men known as the “Fairbanks 4” have settled a federal civil rights suit against the city of Fairbanks.
George Frese, Keven Pease and Eugene Vent agreed to drop claims relative civil rights violations, including coercion of false confessions, and fabrication of evidence that led to their being convicted of the 1997 beating death of John Hartman.
City of Fairbanks attorney Tom Chard says under the agreement finalized in September, the three accepted monetary settlements in exchange for dropping federal civil rights lawsuits.
“Kevin Pease, George Frese and Eugene Venter were offered a settlement of one point five nine million dollars each by the city’s insurer. Those three individuals agreed to that settlement offer, so that effectively concludes their litigation against the city.”
Chard notes that the settlement was offered directly by the Alaska Municipal League Joint Insurance Association.
“It’s extremely unusual for an insurance company to step in and settle something on behalf of their insured, without their insured’s full participation. So, at some point the insurance company made a decision to act unilaterally.”
Chard points to the longevity of the case and the potential for additional years of litigation as factors which likely resulted in the insurance settlement. The city has not admitted to any wrongdoing, and the federal civil rights suit continues, as the other member of the Fairbanks 4: Marvin Roberts declined the settlement.
“I’m prepared to wait this out until I see justice” Roberts says.
It’s been 8 years since a post-conviction relief hearing, during which a key prosecution witness recanted his testimony, and a group of other local men were identified as likely responsible for the Hartman murder. The hearing resulted in the vacation of the Fairbanks’ 4 convictions, but the men had already served nearly 2 decades in prison.
“Wrongfully incarcerated for 18 years of my life. They robbed me of the best years of my life….time lost with my family, my loved ones, building a future. I never did get an apology for the many wrongs against me. I never saw accountability for the many wrongs against me.” Roberts says.
Roberts adds that he hopes the suit also results in law enforcement and legal system changes.
“I would love to see some sort of plan to prevent this type of thing…wrongful convictions, wrongful incarcerations.”
Roberts is awaiting a ruling on a key tenet of the federal civil rights case: the constitutionality of the 2015 release dismissal agreement under which the Fairbanks 4 murder convictions were vacated in exchange for them agreeing not to sue the state and city. Robert’s attorney Mike Kramer says Roberts, who was already out on parole, was coerced into signing the agreement.
“Because the other three were not going to be let out of jail unless Marvin also agreed, so we believe that’s a strong argument and the judge will rule in our favor, in which case the case would proceed to discovery of the merits of police misconduct we’ve made, which is what we’ve been waiting for seven years.”
Kramer says oral arguments on the legality of the release dismissal agreement were heard in September, including whether it served a public purpose.
“Other than to relieve public officials of misconduct.”
US District Court Judge Sharon Gleason is expected to issue a ruling on the release dismissal agreement soon. The city’s defense attorney Matt Singer was unavailable for an interview, but in an email said the city has asked the judge to enforce the agreement, adding that it could be appealed by either side to the Ninth Circuit Court. ###