United States District Court Judge H. Russel Holland is weighing whether or not a federal civil rights suit filed against the city of Fairbanks, Alaska will proceed. The suit has been filed by the Fairbanks Four, a group of men who allege that racial bias led them to be wrongfully convicted of murder.
Attorneys for the city argued a motion to dismiss the suit filed by the Fairbanks Four in front of Holland. New York-based civil rights attorney, Anna Benvenutti Hoffman, represented the Fairbanks Four. According to experts, only an estimated 1% of civil cases actually reach trial in Federal courts.
In 1997, George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, and Eugene Vent were convicted of the murder of John Hartman. New evidence brought forward in 2015 pointed to other suspects in the case of Hartman’s beating death. During a hearing in Fall 2015, the Fairbanks Four made an agreement with the state to vacate their convictions if they did not sue the city for damages.
According to Fairbanks Four attorney Mike Kramer, the men had little choice but to agree to the settlement, which was reached on Dec. 17 2015. The terms of the settlement required that all four men had to agree to not sue the city in order for all of them to be released. Kramer argues that the pressure for all of them to be released and to be out in time for Christmas led them to sign the settlement.
The four men, who each served nearly 20 years in prison, are now trying to pursue that lawsuit. They allege that they were wrongfully convicted in 1997 because of police misconduct and racial bias, including coercion of false confessions and fabrication of evidence. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 50% of officers say that body cameras would likely cause police to act more appropriately. Unfortunately, this technology was not available at the time and there is no recorded evidence of police bias against the four Native men.
The complication of the current hearing involving Judge Holland involves a favorable termination of the original criminal case. According to city attorney Matt Singer, a precedent set by the United States Supreme Court states that the Fairbanks Four have to show that they were found innocent in the criminal case before they can pursue a lawsuit against the city. They were never technically found innocent, but Hoffman argued that the state’s agreement to vacate their conviction constitutes a positive determination.
The Fairbanks Four are seeking damages from the city in compensation for the 18 years they spent in prison. Judge Holland has yet to deliver his ruling on whether or not the case will be allowed to proceed.
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