REPORT: Judge OKs settlement that throws out murder convictions of Fairbanks 4

23 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Fairbanks Four freed as judge accepts deal to throw out indictments, convictions.

A judge in Alaska approved terms of a settlement Thursday that throws out the longstanding convictions of four indigenous men in the 1997 beating death of a teenager in Fairbanks. Update, 5:30 p.m.: The Fairbanks Four are free men, as the three who remained in state custody early Thursday left the Fairbanks Correctional Center shortly after 5 p.m.The young men who spent their adult lives in prison following a controversial 1997 murder conviction, appeared at a closed-door hearing in Fairbanks wearing street clothes. Attorney General Craig Richards says it was obvious that new evidence brought up during the hearing would have warranted a new trial. “It’s just time to heal, help the Fairbanks community heal and put this behind us.” Chris Kelly, the older brother of victim John Hartman, called into the hearing and expressed shock at the news. “If they are guilty, how can you justify making this deal? The three Alaska Native men and an American Indian — George Frese, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent and Marvin Roberts — maintained their innocence in the death of 15-year-old John Hartman.

Alaska Native leaders have long advocated for their release, saying the convictions were racially motivated and emblematic of how Alaska Natives have been treated by the justice system. The four men were convicted of beating a Fairbanks teenager to death in 1997, but many called their convictions a rush to judgment based on their race. Bill Walker, who is also in Fairbanks on Thursday, said he was waiting to see the outcome of an ongoing settlement process, which he described as “more expeditious” than his powers to grant a pardon. At the Rabinowitz Courthouse in Fairbanks, attorneys on both sides of the case are apparently meeting with a Superior Court judge, but the hearing is closed to the public. Advocates long argued the four were wrongly convicted and called on the governor to release them during demonstrations, including an October gathering at the state’s largest convention of Alaska Natives.

As part of a post-conviction relief lawsuit, and during a five-week hearing that ended Nov. 10, attorneys for the four presented evidence that a different group of men killed Hartman. The state would throw out their indictments and convictions and agree not to retry the four unless prosecutors find “substantial” new evidence of the men’s guilt.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports (http://is.gd/cdv2Er) the deal calls for the release of the other three, and bars all four from suing government entities. He asked both sides to come together to write a joint brief due Dec. 20 explaining his authority to release the men if they withdrew their claims of innocence while the state maintained the position their convictions were valid. A judge then canceled a hearing over the proposed deal, saying it was unclear whether he had the authority to free the men without a pardon or clemency.

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