About 40 protesters assembled at Golden Heart Plaza on Saturday to demand the Alaska Senate pass House Bill 127. The bill would return 18 Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend payments to the men known as the Fairbanks Four. The bill would do the same for people who might find themselves in a similar situation in the future.
The protest brings the bill back into focus after sitting in the Senate State Affairs Committee for almost a year. The House showed overwhelming support for HB 127 and passed it with a 38-1 vote in April 2017.
The Fairbanks Four are Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts, George Frese and Kevin Pease. They were convicted of the murder of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman in 1997. The Fairbanks Four eventually teamed up with the Alaska Innocence Project to review their case. Then, in 2015, a superior court judge held a monthlong evidentiary hearing that challenged many of the facts that led to their convictions.
After the hearing, the Fairbanks Four and state prosecutors reached a settlement. Their convictions were vacated and their indictments were dismissed, too. The agreement that helped them get out of jail after 18 years of incarceration also prevents them from being able to sue the state for damages.
State law disqualifies a person from receiving a permanent fund dividend if that person spent any amount of time in that year incarcerated for a felony. HB 127 would require the state to pay a retroactive dividend to a person whose conviction was vacated or reversed; the person is retried and found not guilty; or if all charges on which the conviction is based are dismissed.
If the bill were to pass, the Fairbanks Four would receive about $103,000 split between each of them.
The bill is rational, fair and has a relatively small impact on the budget since these situations are rare. So why is the State Affairs Committee holding the bill?
Earlier this month, Sen. John Coghill, who represents constituents in Fairbanks and North Pole and is a member of the State Affairs Committee, said he had not even reviewed the bill. He said he was hesitant to support HB 127. He said the bill is logical, yet he said it is probably wrong to award the Fairbanks Four their dividends. He argues that this would go back on the agreement they signed — to not seek damages — in order to get out of prison.
Sen. Coghill should reconsider his stance. This bill is not about awarding damages. There is no sentence in the bill saying the state of Alaska acknowledges wrongdoing. It does not award the Fairbanks Four any more money than other Alaskans who received a dividend check during that same time period. The bill simply provides a back payment for a handout the Fairbanks Four would have been, and should have been, entitled to receive.
The bottom line is Mr. Vent, Mr. Roberts, Mr. Frese and Mr. Pease are every bit entitled to the dividend as our senators are. It’s time to pass HB 127 and pay the Fairbanks Four their dividends.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,