By Patrick Gilchrist
Published: Jan. 6, 2024 at 12:10 PM AKST
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) – Fairbanks Four member Marvin Roberts’ wrongful arrest and conviction lawsuit against the City of Fairbanks will go before a jury, pending any appeals.
An order released Thursday authored by Alaska District Federal Judge Sharon Gleason enables Roberts to continue his suit by rejecting the City of Fairbanks’ motion for a summary judgement and outlining flaws in the 2015 settlement agreement.
“It was a great decision by the court,” Roberts wrote in a statement released through his attorney’s office. He added, “I always proclaimed my innocence and will continue to fight for justice for myself and others as I don’t ever want another innocent person to go through what I endured.”
A 2013 confession from William Holmes saying that he and four others murdered 15-year-old John Hartman in 1997 put a spotlight back on the case.
Two years of ensuing court procedures unveiled new evidence and information. Eleven witnesses corroborated Holmes’ confession, and one, Arlo Olson, said Fairbanks Police Department officers coerced him to give a false statement against the Fairbanks Four. Ultimately, enough information had arisen for a retrial.
Having already spent 18 years behind bars for Hartman’s murder, the 2015 settlement agreement nixed the retrial and vacated the four’s convictions under the condition that they would not file future lawsuits against the city or others involved.
Two years later, in 2017, they sued the city.
That legal bullet then put the question before the court: Should the terms preventing the four from filing suit be enforced?
The city moved for a summary judgement on the matter in April of last year. Gleason’s order shooting down that motion and, by extension, terms of
the 2015 agreement boils down to what’s in the “public interest.”
“The next person or group of persons that get to make a decision about it are going to be a jury, and they’re going to decide whether police did engage in misconduct and, if so, what proper compensation is for Marvin, and we’re really excited about getting to that point,” Attorney Mike Kramer, representing Roberts, said in a phone interview Friday.
The city argued in its April 2023 motion that the 2015 agreement was not adverse to public interest because the settlement heals community division and conserves state resources.
On Thursday, Gleason disagreed. “The court does not find these interests to override the interest in permitting an individual to seek redress when that individual may have been wrongfully imprisoned for nearly two decades of his life,” her order reads.
The decision cites several other components of the case, arguing along the same lines.
A condition of the 2015 agreement necessitated that all four members accept the terms for it to get the green light. At the time, Roberts had already been released and was on parole. The others were not.
Transcripts from a July 25, 2022, deposition of Marvin Roberts shows his reaction to the “all four” requirement. “[I]t was all or nothing. And what am I going to do? I’m going to leave my three brothers in prison, in jail, a week before Christmas?” Roberts is recorded to have said, later adding, “I would be forced to have that hanging over my head, that I let my brothers stay in prison … when they’re innocent.”
Gleason found that portion of the 2015 settlement agreement also ran amuck from what the city needed to prove prior to a summary judgement.
“The Court finds that Defendants have not shown how the public interest is served or what ‘legitimate criminal justice objective’ is attained by requiring all four men to agree to a release-dismissal agreement instead of allowing each one to make an individual choice,” Gleason wrote.
Kramer, in the Friday interview, celebrated the development and concurred with Gleason’s order. “In her regard, she was looking at what’s good public policy, and good public policy is if an innocent person is in prison for 18 years of their life … the government should be held accountable, and the person whose civil rights were violated and were wrongfully imprisoned for that long should be able to seek compensation from those who harm them,” he said.
Asked for the city’s response to the order, Fairbanks City Attorney Thomas Chard said litigators and city officials are still in the process of weighing the available options. “It’s an important case. It’s a monumental case … [and] we’ll do what we can and keep everyone as informed as possible as we move forward,” he said.
The order says that all the parties will meet within the next two weeks to hash out a resolution for the merits of Roberts’ claims against the named defendants: the City of Fairbanks and then-FPD officers James Geier, Clifford Aaron Ring, Chris Nolan and Dave Kendrick.
Since November, Roberts has been the only plaintiff in the case.
The other three members of the Fairbanks Four — George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent — settled about two months ago with the city’s insurer, the Alaska Municipal League Joint Insurance Association.
Those three will be paid $1.6 million each.
Copyright 2024 KTVF. All rights reserved.