FAIRBANKS—Marvin Roberts, one of the Fairbanks Four, is suing the city of Fairbanks and four Fairbanks Police Department officers over what he maintains was his wrongful imprisonment for the 1997 beating death of 15-year-old John Hartman.
Roberts held his daughter, Lorelai, dressed in purple fleece, as his attorney filed the federal civil rights lawsuit Thursday afternoon in Fairbanks. Roberts and three others spent nearly two decades imprisoned on murder convictions for the death of Hartman, who was found badly beaten at the corner of 9th Avenue and Barnette Street.
The suit alleges Roberts has been repeatedly victimized by a criminal justice system that will not hold the city accountable for depriving him of his basic civil rights. Former police officers listed as defendants are Detective James Geier, Detective Aaron Ring, Detective Chris Nolan and Sgt. Dave Kendrick.
Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent were convicted in 1999 but have long claimed their innocence.
Their murder indictments were dismissed two years ago in an agreement with the state following a claim by another man, William Z. Holmes, that it was he and his group of people, not the Fairbanks Four, who killed Hartman.
Roberts was on parole in December 2015 while Frese, Pease and Vent were still in prison. They were waiting for Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle to rule in a post-conviction relief case based on evidence presented that it was the other group of people who killed Hartman. Lyle’s ruling was expected to take about eight months and carried with it the possibility of a new trial.
Rather than wait for the ruling, all four men signed an agreement with the state that erased their murder convictions and immediately freed Frese, Pease and Vent. In exchange, all four agreed to withdraw their claims of prosecutorial misconduct and agreed not to sue the state, the city of Fairbanks or any individuals involved in the case.
Roberts’ lawyer, Michael Kramer, said Thursday that Roberts was effectively coerced into that agreement.
“The settlement itself was a violation of civil rights. The state held the keys to the steel cage his three brothers were locked in. The only way they were going to get out for Christmas, or maybe ever, was if Marvin signed that agreement,” Kramer said, likening the deal to paying a ransom.
The lawsuit seeks a judgment that “the release-dismissal agreement is unenforceable,” followed by a jury trial to award reparations. “We’re going to have to convince a federal judge the deal violates public policy and it can’t be enforced,” Kramer said.
Kramer expects the city of Fairbanks to uphold the status quo and aggressively defend its former police officers who arrested and investigated the four.
“They have to admit or deny to every one of the (lawsuit’s) allegations, and we made hundreds of them,” Kramer said.
The suit alleges police officers “deliberately coerced false testimony… reported information they knew to be false… deprived Marvin of his clearly established rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments…”
City spokeswoman Teal Soden said Fairbanks had not received any court papers as of Thursday evening and declined to comment on the case.
In a statement made public Thursday before the court filing, Kramer describes what he and Roberts believe was the political climate at the city of Fairbanks in 1997, the year the four were charged with murder.
The statement cites a corrupt government and an allegedly discriminatory police force, including, “a mayor who was later convicted of stealing from his church, and a police chief who had threatened to frame two innocent men who reported him for lying on time sheets. The police chief was also implicated in the theft of guns, drugs, and $510,000 in cash from the police evidence room.”
Kramer also notes that the Fairbanks Police Department had no Alaska Native officers then and does not now, and alleges police bullied witnesses and manipulated evidence. Three of the men convicted are Alaska Native and one is Native American.
In the statement, Kramer quotes former Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Ron Otte as saying a rush to judgment by police in the case “resulted in sloppy and questionable police conduct.”
The statement says the Police Department “actively concealed” the confessions of others involved in Hartman’s killing and that the department “has refused to charge the real killers.”
Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcity.