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Appeals court reverses dismissal of ‘Fairbanks Four’ lawsuit against city

The Fairbanks Four, from left, George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent and Kevin Pease, raise four fingers as a symbol of their struggle during a potlatch held in their honor at the Big Dipper arena in Fairbanks on Oct. 19, 2016. The men spent 18 years in prison for a 1997 murder they say they didn’t commit, and were released after a December 2015 settlement with the state of Alaska. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive)

FAIRBANKS — A federal appeals court has reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by four Fairbanks men who contend they were illegally imprisoned for nearly two decades.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday overturned a lower court ruling that dismissed a lawsuit by the “Fairbanks Four” against the city of Fairbanks, KTVF television reported.

George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent were convicted of murder in the 1997 death of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman. The four men spent 18 years in prison while they asserted their innocence and appealed their convictions.

After a five-week hearing that re-examined the cases in detail, and presented the case that others killed Hartman, the convictions were vacated in December 2015.

The four men sued the city for wrongful imprisonment and said an agreement that led to their release, in which they agreed not to sue, was not legally binding because they were coerced.

U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland ruled against them in October 2018. The men needed to have their criminal convictions invalidated, not simply vacated, before they could sue, he ruled.

The judge referenced a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case that outlined how a defendant in a criminal case must be cleared before seeking monetary damages from prosecutors and police.

In a 2-1 decision, the 9th Circuit Court reversed the dismissal. Appeals judges concluded that the precedent only applies if the plaintiffs face outstanding criminal judgment or pending charges. Because the convictions of the Fairbanks men had been vacated, and their indictments dismissed, the judges ruled that the precedent did not apply.

An attorney for the city of Fairbanks, Matt Singer, said the city was disappointed and may seek reconsideration by the appeals court.

"We respectfully think that the two judges got it wrong and misapplied the law," he said.

Mike Kramer, an attorney for two of the four men, said the decision was great news. "It was a lengthy decision but very well-reasoned." Kramer said.

Attorneys will begin preparing for a jury trial made up of Fairbanks residents in an attempt to get justice for his clients, he said.

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