FAIRBANKS, Alaska (CN) - An Alaska state court judge vacated the murder convictions of four men known as the "Fairbanks Four" and released them after 18 years in prison.
The release occurred after an unscheduled hearing Thursday on a settlement offered by the state. Supporters of the men standing outside the closed courtroom cheered as news of Judge Paul Lyle's order reached them, the Fairbanks News Miner reported..
Lyle approved a settlement that throws out the indictments and murder convictions of George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent in the 1997 beating death of 15-year-old John Hartman.
The judge ordered Frese, Pease and Vent to be released immediately. Roberts was paroled earlier this year.
Lyle's order returns the men - three Alaska Natives of Athabascan descent and one an American Indian from the lower 48 states - to pretrial status. The state will not retry the case, the Fairbanks paper reported.
Many in the Alaska Native community believe race played a role in the quick capture and prosecution of the men. Hartman was white.
In exchange for their release, the men agreed not to sue government agencies over their wrongful convictions - although all four maintain their innocence.
After word of an initial settlement hearing was leaked and the Dec. 10 hearing canceled by Lyle, the four submitted a follow-up court filing that clarified that they "have maintained, and will always maintain, that they are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted."
Prosecutors' first attempt at a settlement asked the four to abandon their latest legal effort to prove their innocence. But in canceling the hearing on the settlement, Lyle expressed doubt that he had the authority to approve the unusual arrangement.
"Trial judges have no desire to stand in the way of lawful settlements," Lyle wrote in his Dec. 10 order. "However, the undersigned is unaware of the legal authority that would permit the immediate release of prisoners who have withdrawn their claims of innocence, while the state continues to assert the validity of their convictions."
Lyle had given both sides 10 days to jointly submit a brief explaining how he has the authority to grant such a deal. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker had been considering clemency or pardon, but changes put in place during former Gov. Sarah Palin's administration require a minimum of 120 days for that to happen.
"I'm pleased the State of Alaska Department of Law and legal counsel representing the Fairbanks Four, including the State of Alaska Office of Public Advocacy, agreed on a settlement that satisfied the court," Walker said in a statement. "I'm glad there was a process available to the Fairbanks Four where all involved could arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement. I hope this settlement helps to begin the healing process, and provides some measure of justice and closure."
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, echoed Walker's sentiments and praised Lyle for accepting the settlement.
"I am pleased that the state of Alaska agreed to set aside the convictions of the Fairbanks Four based on the new evidence that has been developed and that Judge Lyle has accepted the settlement agreement today," Murkowski said in a statement posted to her website. "I first took up the cause of the Fairbanks Four in 2013, asking the state to take a hard look at whether their convictions were just. I concurrently asked the US Department of Justice to examine whether the civil rights of the Fairbanks Four were violated."
She added, "I also commend the members of the Fairbanks community who have stood vigil to ensure that the cause of the Fairbanks Four was not forgotten. Justice prevails!"
The agreement came on the heels of the men's habeas petition to reverse their convictions and declare them innocent.
So-called "trickery" used by detectives at the time to garner confessions from Vent and Frese, along with a lack of physical evidence, an eyewitness who has since recanted, and a new theory of who actually beat Hartman led to a five-week evidentiary hearing that ended Nov. 10.
Under the terms of the amended deal, Lyle granted the men new trials based on the recently discovered evidence. Prosecutors then dismissed the charges and ordered the men unconditionally released. In exchange, the four men agreed to drop their claims of prosecutorial misconduct and never sue Alaska or the city of Fairbanks.
This time, Lyle had a legal obligation to sign off on the deal.
"This court would violate the separation of powers (doctrine) in any attempt to stop it," he said. "This is a lawful settlement."
Pease and Roberts were represented by William Oberly of the Alaska Innocence Project.
Robert Bundy of the Anchorage firm Dorsey & Whitney represented Frese.
Vent was represented by Whitney Glover with the Office of Public Advocacy, also in Anchorage.
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