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Crime & Justice

New court filings detail proposed deal to free Fairbanks Four

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published December 11, 2015

An unusual settlement filed in Fairbanks Superior Court Friday makes public for the first time the terms of a deal to free men who have spent their adult lives imprisoned for a 1997 murder they say they didn't commit.

Convictions for the Fairbanks Four would be voided and indictments would be dismissed if the settlement agreements are approved. They would give up any claims for damages over their lost years, but they also would no longer owe restitution.

And Eugene Vent, George Frese and Kevin Pease would go free. Marvin Roberts got out earlier this year after serving nearly 18 years, but remains under state supervision until 2030.

It's still unknown whether ?Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle will accept the deal. Lawyers for the men on Friday also filed in court a brief notice to clarify what they described as a misperception by the judge. Contrary to his summary of the deal to free the men, they said they are not abandoning their "claims of innocence."

They "have maintained, and will always maintain, that they are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted," the separate notice said.

Lyle, who presided over a recent five-week trial based on new evidence the defense said shows innocence, had reviewed a confidential copy of the agreement, prepared jointly by state prosecutors and the defense team.

In an order Thursday, he asked the lawyers to explain the legal authority to release the men after "withdrawing their claims of innocence" and with the state maintaining they are guilty. He gave the lawyers 10 days to jointly file a new document describing under what authority the men would be released. If he approves the agreement, it will negate the need for him to decide whether the men are innocent or guilty.

The state Department of Law on Friday emailed a brief statement that said the proposed deal was intended to "bring an end to this litigation and allow the community of Fairbanks to begin the healing process."

Copies of the 10-page settlement agreement were filed in each of the men's post-conviction civil cases. Long passages spell out how the men agree to drop any claims of "malicious prosecution, wrongful imprisonment, prosecutorial misconduct" and other possible wrongs by a long list of parties.

The men have agreed to withdraw a petition in which they were seeking a declaration of "actual innocence." But that doesn't mean they don't maintain their innocence, the new notice said. The defense "wanted to correct the Court's misperception as soon as possible."

Under the proposed deal, the state would agree that it wouldn't seek to retry the men, but it could do so "if substantial new evidence of guilt is discovered."

The state has continued to contest the men's assertions of misconduct by police and prosecutors, the agreements note.

Lyle said he didn't believe the court rule cited in the proposed settlement could be used to set aside a conviction in a case like that of the Fairbanks Four.

A different rule could apply, but it would require him to rule in favor of the defendants on the substance of their claims, he said in the order Thursday. For that to happen, the two sides would have to agree that the men proved their innocence, or the state would have to stop contesting the validity of their claims, the judge said.

A team of lawyers representing the men continues to work on the case, including Bill Oberly, executive director and sole employee of the Alaska Innocence Project, Dorsey & Whitney lawyers working pro bono, and the state Office of Public Advocacy, including the agency director, Rick Allen.

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