FAIRBANKS -- The men known as the Fairbanks Four, convicted of the 1997 murder of a Fairbanks teenager and imprisoned for 18 years, were released Thursday after a settlement was reached with the state.
The court approved the settlement with the four men earlier Thursday, and after the courtroom was opened to the public, Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle vacated the men's convictions, returning them to pretrial status. The state, represented by Attorney General Craig Richards, said it won't retry the case.
George Frese, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease and Marvin Roberts have always maintained their innocence in the case of 15-year-old John Hartman's death. Roberts was paroled earlier this year, but the other men remained in prison.
Richards said outside the courthouse that Thursday's agreement was the same as a proposal put forth last week. That proposal included an agreement that the men wouldn't sue the government over their convictions, giving up any future claims to damages.
"It's the exact same settlement document that was accepted today that was previously signed by the parties," Richards said.
Meanwhile, the state agrees not to pursue new trials unless there is new evidence in the case.
"The agreement reached today says that (the convictions) were properly obtained, and that nothing was done improperly either by the Fairbanks Police Department, by the lead detective, Aaron Ring, by any prosecutor that worked on the case," said Department of Law Criminal Division Director John Skidmore. "Instead, what has been revealed is that there is new evidence submitted that suggests if they were tried again today, it would be more difficult to convict them."
Attorneys for the four men and the state met throughout the day Thursday in a closed settlement conference, while more than 160 people gathered outside on the fifth floor of the Rabinowitz Courthouse. Later in the afternoon, Lyle opened the courtroom to the public, and about 50 people were allowed inside. Lyle then described the terms of the settlement.
"The petitioners stipulate and agree that the original jury verdicts and judgments for conviction were properly and validly entered based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Lyle said. "The parties stipulate and agree that there is sufficient new evidence of material facts that a new trial could be ordered" under state law.
The men agreed to withdraw claims of prosecutorial misconduct and the state "will not seek retrial in any of the underlying criminal cases and will file dismissals," he said.
After a lengthy description of the legal process, Lyle said the words the four men and their supporters had been waiting to hear: "The petitioners will be returned to Fairbanks Correctional Center and released forthwith after this hearing."
Sean Kelly, Hartman's brother, spoke by telephone at the hearing, voicing strong opposition to the settlement.
"I would like to replace 'petitioners' with the words 'convicted murderers,' because that's the way I feel," Kelly said. "Knowing they are guilty and getting away with it, I don't see how you will be able to sleep at night."
After the defense attorneys thanked Lyle for his work on the case, the three men, wearing new clothes purchased at Fred Meyer and Big Ray's in downtown Fairbanks, left the courthouse. They were taken to the Fairbanks jail for official discharge as celebration erupted just outside the courtroom.
Spontaneous drumming and dancing outside the courtroom #FairbanksFour pic.twitter.com/Rq6uT6xJpJ Julia Madeline (@JuliaFBXLawRpt) December 18, 2015
The three newly released men were joined by Roberts at a celebration later that evening at the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall, entering the building to wild cheering from several hundred people, who shouted, "Welcome home!" They made their way to the stage, one at a time, with hugs, applause and the pounding of a drum.
Attorney Bill Oberly of the Alaska Innocence Project said, "I'm a little speechless right now."
"It's six years of work and 18 years of lost opportunity for the boys," he said. "It's what we set out to do six years ago. I just wish there was more I could do for the boys."
"I love you guys so much," said Eugene Vent, thanking the crowd and praising the lawyers. "It's an unbelievable feeling right now."
"We never gave up because of you guys. Thank you," he said.