ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) — A U.S. District Court judge dismissed a federal civil rights lawsuit brought against the City of Fairbanks by Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, George Frese, and Kevin Pease, seeking damages for mishandling the murder investigation that led to their arrests and imprisonment in 1997.
According to a release from the Fairbanks Mayor's Office, U.S. District Court Judge Russel Holland granted a motion to dismiss the case Monday. The judge's decision cites U.S. Supreme Court case Heck v. Humphrey, a 1994 case establishing that, in order to recover damages for unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, a plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence had been subject to "favorable termination."
The Fairbanks Mayor's office said in the statement that the plaintiffs having their convictions vacated does not satisfy the requirements of "favorable termination" as defined by Heck v. Humphrey, because the convictions weren't reversed on appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal, or questioned by a federal court's writ of habeas corpus.
Mike Kramer, attorney for Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent, argues that Heck v. Humphrey doesn't apply because his clients are not convicted murderers.
"Not only were the charges dropped, but the previous convictions were vacated or removed. As Marvin Roberts stands here today, he's not a convicted murderer," Kramer said in a phone interview with KTUU.
Kramer says favorable termination only applies to cases where there's an extant conviction, which there are none in this case, but Judge Holland ultimately disagreed with the plaintiffs' interpretation.
Attorneys for the Fairbanks Four argued that an agreement signed by the plaintiffs to drop the charges being brought by the state in a retrial as well as vacating their prior convictions offered the men freedom in exchange for their civil rights — an agreement they argue is coercive and unenforceable.
"They had been through a five-week trial in Fairbanks, and the final day at trial, the judge told everybody 'It's going to take at least six to eight months to make a decision on this,' and meanwhile, you know, they're rotting in jail with Christmas coming," Kramer said of the circumstances leading to the agreement being signed. "So the prosecutor approached them and said, 'Hey, we've got a deal for you. You don't sue us, you don't air our dirty laundry in public and we'll let you out of jail and erase your convictions.' So, they signed."
In his dismissal, Judge Holland did not rule on the validity of the agreement, leaving open questions about whether the agreement is enforceable or coercive.
Kramer says the plaintiffs plan to file an appeal in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the coming weeks, but don't expect a decision for around two years.
"Fortunately, these boys have a lot of patience. They're used to a judicial system that's slow and sometimes takes a while to get right," Kramer said. "Unfortunately they're far too used to being disappointed and having rulings against them. So, they took it well and in stride, and we're confident we're legally correct, and we're going to keep fighting for them. They're in it for the long haul, as are we."