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Fairbanks Four Co-defendant Marvin Roberts Files Civil Rights Lawsuit vs. City of Fairbanks

Dan Bross/KUAC

Fairbanks Four co-defendant Marvin Roberts is suing the city and four Fairbanks police officers over allegations that his civil rights were violated by police during their investigation of a 1997 murder, which led to a trial and conviction of the plaintiff and three others in 1999.Roberts claims in a suit filed Thursday in Federal Court in Fairbanks that the four officers falsely accused him and his three co-defendants of the murder of 15-year-old John Hartman. The suit claims the four officers built their case on phony evidence, and that they and corrupt city officials disregarded other evidence that incriminated others and instead pushed for conviction of the four defendants, who came to be known as the Fairbanks Four.

“There’s basic safeguards that the police and others involved in the system. And some of those are basic investigatory techniques that don’t just focus on a single individual or a single suspect,” said Michael Kramer, Roberts’ attorney.

Michael Kramer is Roberts’s attorney, and he says the lawsuit also asks the judge who’ll hear the case to release Roberts from the terms of a agreement the city offered the Fairbanks Four in 2015, after another man confessed to the killing and other evidence was produced during a post-conviction relief hearing. The city offered to vacate charges against the four, who by then had spent 18 years behind bars, and in exchange, the Fairbanks Four had to agree to withdraw their claims of prosecutorial misconduct. The agreement also required them not to sue the state, the city of Fairbanks or any of the officers or others involved in the case.

“It was an inherently coercive agreement that he entered into it, although the city’s going to try and hide behind it,” Kramer said. “We think that the judge will find that he was under extreme duress, that the agreement was coerced and that it just can’t be enforced as a matter of public policy.”

Credit Amanda Frank/KUAC
The Fairbanks Four were honored during the opening-day welcome potlatch of the Alaska Federation of Natives' 2016 convention at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. From left: Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Eugene Vent and Kevin Pease.

He says if the judge agrees, Roberts will seek to recover damages from the city that will enable him to recover some of the income that he was unable to earn while behind bars.

“He lost out on the most productive years of his life,” Kramer said “And while he can’t get those years back, one thing we can do to this case is make the city accept responsibility and hopefully provide some compensation for him, in the end.”

City officials declined to comment on the case today, claiming they hadn’t had a chance to review the complaint.

The other three defendants are George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent. Roberts, Frese and Vent all are Athabascan, and Pease is Native American. The lawsuit says prejudice by investigators and other officials against indigenous people played a role in their unjust conviction.

A hearing on the lawsuit has not yet been scheduled.

Editor's note: The Innocence Project assisted the Fairbanks Four in their efforts to bring the case back to court for post-conviction relief.

Editor's note II -- This story has been revised to correct the indigenous identity of Eugene Vent and Kevin Pease: Vent is Athabascan and Pease is Native American.  

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.