FAIRBANKS, Alaska (CN) - An Alaska state judge on Friday canceled a hearing that could have resulted in the release of three men imprisoned for a 1997 murder, saying a deal offered by prosecutors had no legal precedent.
The men, known as the "Fairbanks Four," had accepted a deal offered by state prosecutors that would have immediately freed them in exchange for withdrawing their claims of innocence and any right to sue the Fairbanks police or prosecutors in the future.
George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent accepted the deal, while the fourth man - Marvin Roberts - was paroled earlier this year.
"Trial judges have no desire to stand in the way of lawful settlements. 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the undersigned is unaware of the legal authority that would permit the immediate release of prisoners who have withdrawn their claims of innocence, while the state continues to assert the validity of their convictions," Fourth Judicial District Judge Paul Lyle wrote in a five-page order that vacated Friday's hearing and put the settlement on hold.
Lyle had given the parties 10 days to jointly submit a brief explaining how he has the authority to grant such a deal. Under the deal prosecutors would continue to stand by their position that the men are "actually guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" and would reserve the right to prosecute them again if new evidence was found.
The men, three of whom are Alaska Natives of Athabascan decent and one an American Indian, maintain they are innocent of the 1997 brutal beating that killed white Fairbanks teenager John Hartman. Many in the Alaska Native community believe race played a role in the quick capture and prosecution of the men.
The agreement came on the heels of the men's habeas petition asking Lyle to reverse their convictions and declare them innocent. For 18 years, the men have maintained their innocence and fought to reverse the convictions through several unsuccessful appeals.
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.
Lyle - who also presided over the evidentiary hearing - said he would take at least six months to decide their habeas request. He could let the convictions stand, exonerate and free the men or send the case back to be tried again.
Friday's canceled hearing would have been a separate matter, with lawyers on both sides going after a separate resolution from the habeas petition.
"The state is free to grant clemency or pardons to petitioners," Lyle wrote. "In the absence of those options, trial courts are authorized to enter an appropriate order (including vacation of convictions and immediate release) under Criminal Rule 35.1(g) only if the judge finds in favor of the applicants on the substance of their claims."
According to the summary of the ruling, the state continues to insist that the convictions were properly entered and their proposed agreement is not an offer of pardon or clemency - leaving Lyle without a known legal authority to vacate the convictions. He explained that had prosecutors stipulated that the men are innocent, he might have been in a position to order release.
Lyle said he is concerned that "once the attorney general exercises his or her broad discretion to pursue settlements in civil actions, he or she cannot, thereafter, vacate a criminal conviction based on the basis of inherent authority where the convictions have been affirmed on merit appeal and the Legislature has enacted statutes expressly governing under what circumstances affirmed convictions may be set aside."
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker has been considering clemency or pardon but no decision has been made, according to a representative with his office.
The Alaska Innocence Project has been heavily involved on the side of the Fairbanks Four as has the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of 42 interior Alaska Native tribes.
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