After 18 years in jail, Alaska's Fairbanks Four are free but not quite clear

The men, three Alaska Natives and an American Indian, were convicted of killing a Fairbanks teenager in 1997 murder. They have maintained their innocence in the crime; Alaska Native leaders have said the convictions were racially motivated.

Eric Engman/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/AP
Marvin Roberts (r.) and Tanana Chiefs Conference President Victor Joseph (l.) dance with friends and family at the Rabinowitz Courthouse on Thursday, in Fairbanks, Alaska. 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.

After spending nearly two decades in an Alaska prison, all four men known as the Fairbanks Four have been freed.

The men, three Alaska Natives and an American Indian, have spent 18 years in prison for the 1997 murder of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman. They have maintained their innocence in the crime; Alaska Native leaders have said the convictions were racially motivated.

One of the four men, Marvin Roberts, was released on parole earlier this year; the other three, George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Eugene Vent, had remained in prison since their arrests in 1997. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that they were freed Thursday evening.

The negotiated settlement outlined by Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle provided that the state of Alaska was obligated to dismiss its charges against the Fairbanks Four. The men were allowed to be released under the condition that they withdraw their claim of prosecutorial misconduct and not sue either Fairbanks or the state of Alaska.

On his official Twitter feed, Alaska Governor Bill Walker said that he was pleased with the outcome.

Cheers erupted in the small courtroom after the hearing ended, and the News-Miner reported that the men then attended a celebration at the local David Salmon Tribal Hall.

"It was what we were looking [for] from the very start. The convictions are done away with. They have no convictions and they're free. It's what we were looking for," Bill Oberly, chief executive officer of the Alaska Innocence Project, told the News-Miner in an interview after the hearing.

The Alaska Innocence Project had long advocated for the four men, forming a case based on the recollections of a Fairbanks man who is now in a California prison on murder charges. They maintain that the recollections of William Holmes Sr., who was a senior at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks in 1997, were not clear enough to correctly identify the Fairbanks Four as the perpetrators of the crime.

The office of Alaska Attorney General Craig Richards said that the settlement was not an exoneration for the men.

"In this settlement, the four defendants agreed they were properly and validly investigated, prosecuted and convicted," the office said in a news release. "This compromise reflects the Attorney General's recognition that if the defendants were retried today it is not clear under the current state of the evidence that they would be convicted."

The Alaska Dispatch News reports that the state is not interested in retrying the case, barring the revelation of new evidence.

Mr. Hartman’s older brother, Chris Kelly, spoke to the court by phone during the hearing and said that he did not understand the rationale for the agreement.

"I can't believe it," he said. "I feel like my family is completely wronged."

"If they’re innocent – if you believe that all of a sudden now – I don’t see why you could even justify doing this to them. And if they’re guilty, I don’t see how you can justify making a deal,” he added.

Alaskan state prosecutors have maintained that convictions for the men were properly obtained.

In a statement, state Rep. Scott Kawasaki (D) of Fairbanks said that he was pleased with the outcome, and that he was glad the men would be able to spend the holidays with their families.

"The wounds of this case will eventually heal, but it will take time," Representative Kawasaki said. "It is unfortunate to see that the Fairbanks Four had to settle for a deal like this rather than see justice done, but I emphasize with the desire to be free and with family."

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