FAIRBANKS (AP) — The mayor of Fairbanks says the city and state should consider compensating the four indigenous men who spent nearly two decades in prison before their convictions in a teenager’s beating death were overturned.
Mayor John Eberhart spoke at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention about ways the city can work to repair its relationship with Alaska Natives, The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.
“A major issue that caused a rift for many years in our community was the Fairbanks Four,” Eberhart said Thursday. “There are serious questions about the case and the truth, and I urge the state and city to consider an ex gratia — or voluntary payment — to the Fairbanks Four.”
The three Alaska Native men and an American Indian — George Frese, Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts and Kevin Pease — were convicted of second-degree murder but maintained their innocence in the 1997 killing of John Hartman, 15.
In December, the four finalized a settlement with the state that tossed their convictions. They agreed not to sue government entities.
The deal came after defense attorneys argued new evidence proved the men were innocent and that their arrests and convictions were racially motivated.
State lawmakers considered a bill this year that would have allowed Alaskans whose felony convictions are overturned and charges dismissed to apply for Permanent Fund Dividend checks foregone while incarcerated. The measure, inspired by the Fairbanks Four case, ultimately was rejected.
At the time, officials said the four men would have been eligible for about $27,000 each for the 18 years they spent behind bars.
Will Mayo, a former president of Tanana Chiefs Conference, also brought up the payment issue at Thursday’s convention.
“Justice will not be served until there is just compensation,” he said. “They signed an agreement not to pursue it, but I didn’t sign it. I think that fairness and justice will come the day that they are compensated for those 18 years of incarceration.”
Alaska Innocence Project director and attorney Bill Oberly was presented with an award during the convention for his work on the Fairbanks case.
“This group of Native Alaskans roared, and justice was done,” Oberly said. “I learned from this that when you come together in a common cause — be it a wrongful conviction, wrongs that are done to the community — you can get things done.”