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Alaska justice reforms needed to prevent 'Fairbanks Four' sequels

Now that the Fairbanks Four are finally free, Alaska's focus must shift to securing a more enduring justice. Alaska needs to ensure that debacles like the Fairbanks Four's can never happen again. This requires that members of Alaska's criminal justice system consider the consequences they could encounter if they choose to disregard their ethical and legal obligations.

Former Texas governor Rick Perry authorized more death penalty executions than any governor in recent history. But he also enacted policies that offer model reforms for Alaska's criminal justice system.

Perry felt obligated to address Texas' notoriety for having the largest number of prisoners proven to have been falsely convicted, during the period when DNA testing was being developed into an extremely accurate forensic tool. Among those found to have been falsely imprisoned, about three-quarters of the convictions were caused by erroneous identification when eyewitnesses were shown police lineups.

Perry recognized that to be tough on crime while minimizing false convictions, rigorous legal and ethical standards are needed throughout the criminal justice system. Thus, Perry signed the Tim Cole Act in 2009, followed by the Eyewitness ID Reform Act in 2011. Then, in 2013, Perry continued with approvals of the Prosecutor Accountability Act and the Michael Morton Act. These laws:

• provide substantial compensation for innocent inmates, whose plans to live normal lives were shattered when they were falsely convicted and imprisoned;
• require that uniform scientific methods be applied when administering police lineups, which significantly reduces error rates when eyewitnesses identify offenders;
• mandate that prosecutors open their files to information that defense lawyers might find useful, and
• extend the statute of limitations for holding prosecutors accountable if they’ve chosen to suppress evidence useful to a defendant’s case.

Gov. Perry approved compensation for falsely convicted inmates with $10,000 to get re-established immediately after being released from prison, plus an $80,000-per-year lifetime annuity after their release, plus a lump sum based on the time they were falsely imprisoned, plus paying for up to 120 hours of college credit, plus access to health insurance equivalent to that of the guards who once imprisoned them.

While Gov. Perry's tough-on-crime posture seemingly conflicts with his hard-hitting standards for criminal justice officials, readers can read and review the following articles online, which describe his reasoning:

a) Time Magazine’s 2009 article “Texas: The Kinder, Gentler Hang 'Em High State”;
c) The Austin Statesman’s 2013 article “Tab for wrongful convictions in Texas: $65 million and counting”;
d) The Texas Tribune’s 2013 article “Morton Act, DA Accountability Bill Head to Perry” and
e) Police Chief Magazine’s 2009 article “Failures in Criminal Investigation

Texas prosecutors have been disbarred, jailed and forced to defend their professional standing with the State Bar of Texas for the types of prosecutorial tactics that landed the Fairbanks Four in prison and kept them there over the past 18 years.

Texas prosecutors Charles Sebasta and Ken Anderson were recently disbarred for withholding evidence favorable to the defense, and Sebasta did jail time. Former prosecutor John Jackson is currently defending against similar charges, along with coaching a key witness. Judge Sharon Keller was issued a “Public Warning” by the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct for her role in allowing an execution to proceed for a death row inmate who was about to be proven innocent. Keller’s “Public Warning” was eventually dismissed on appeal.

Since key individuals in Alaska’s criminal justice system seemingly remain indifferent to the lapses that led to the Fairbanks Four's convictions, the officials who oversee them should step in:

1) The Alaska Legislature should review and adopt Gov. Perry’s reforms, and put some teeth behind Alaska’s ethics rules for police and prosecutors.
2) The U.S. Justice Department, Gov. Bill Walker, Alaska Attorney General Craig Richards and Fairbanks Mayor John Eberhart should launch independent investigations to determine what went wrong,
3) Alaska attorneys who believe the Fairbanks Four’s case should be reviewed for inconsistencies with the Alaska Bar Association’s rules of conduct should contact our long-time coworker and friend Ed Davis at 907-479-7263.
4) Local law enforcement should determine why those administering the Fairbanks Four’s interrogations testified they were and still are unaware of, and actually used, the groupthink, cognitive bias and tunnel vision interview techniques defined in the Police Chief Magazine article cited above. These flawed techniques frequently lead police investigators to false charges.

Last, but not least, the Legislature and the governor should find ways to appropriately compensate the Fairbanks Four for destroying what their lives might have been today, if not for blunders by key players in Alaska’s criminal justice system.

Lee DeWilde, Wally Carlo and Ed Davis are former and current oil industry workers, and DeWilde and Carlo are longtime leaders in Alaska Native and non-Native communities.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any Web browser.

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