An unprecedented deal to free the Fairbanks Four, who have been imprisoned for most of their adult lives on murder convictions, is being questioned by the judge overseeing the case.
Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle on Thursday abruptly canceled a hearing that had been set for Friday morning in which it was widely reported three of the four men still in prison would be released. The fourth, Marvin Roberts, was set free from prison earlier this year after serving nearly 18 years. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner had reported relatives of the murder victim had been told the remaining convicted men would be set free as soon as Friday.
Lyle's order, released late Thursday afternoon, reveals key points of the proposed settlement between state prosecutors and defense lawyers for the four men: Eugene Vent, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Roberts. The order also explained why he couldn't order their immediate release.
Under the settlement agreement, the four men will no longer claim innocence and the state will continue to assert they are guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of killing John Hartman and assaulting another man, Franklin Dayton, the judge wrote. The agreement said the men would go free and give up any claims for monetary damages, the judge's order said.
"Trial judges have no desire to stand in the way of lawful settlements," Lyle wrote. "However, (I am) unaware of the legal authority that would permit the immediate release of petitioners who have withdrawn their claims of innocence while the state continues to assert the validity of their convictions."
Gov. Bill Walker could grant clemency or pardon the men, the judge wrote. The governor has been considering clemency or a pardon, a spokesperson said, but added no decision had been made.
Release of the men has been a major issue for the Alaska Native community and for other proponents of their innocence, including the Alaska Innocence Project. Three of four defendants are Alaska Natives.
Lyle presided over an unusual five-week post-conviction hearing, a kind of minitrial, that ended Nov. 10. Lawyers for the four men tried to show their innocence based on new evidence. A witness came forward who says he drove a different group of young men around Fairbanks the night of Oct. 10, 1997. A man in that group, Jason Wallace, and others were responsible for the death of Hartman, the witness, Bill Holmes, testified.
Also, an eyewitness for the prosecution recanted his testimony that he saw the four men beat Franklin Dayton just hours before Hartman was killed, then get into Roberts' blue, two-door car. Arlo Olson, described by the defense team as a key witness in the three murder trials back in 1999, said he was pressured by a detective and prosecutor to lie and that in reality, he saw his attackers get into a tan or white four-door car and couldn't tell who they were.
The judge said he wasn't disapproving the deal outright. Instead, Lyle asked both sides to jointly file a brief within 10 days explaining the legal authority for what they propose. But he said he is unaware of anything that would allow him to order freedom for convicted murderers when the state maintains their guilt and the defendants no longer proclaim their innocence.
When the minitrial ended in November, Lyle said he anticipated taking six months or longer to decide whether to free the men, let the convictions stand or come up with another answer. The lawyers were trying to settle the case on their own. The key attorneys on both sides declined to comment. John Skidmore, head of the Department of Law's criminal division, said he would be working on the state's response Friday.
Alaska Dispatch News Reporter Nathaniel Herz contributed to this story.