(CN) – Four men who spent 18 years in prison for a murder they didn’t commit can sue the city of Fairbanks, Alaska, for malicious prosecution, the Ninth Circuit ruled Wednesday, after their convictions were tossed when another man confessed to the crime.
In 1997, 15-year-old John Hartman was beaten to death on the streets of Fairbanks. Four men – three Alaskan natives and one Native American from the lower 48 states – were quickly sentenced to between 30 and 77 years in prison for the death of the white teen – a pat resolution made possible by what were later found to be coerced confessions and the hiding of exculpatory evidence. It was a process that many said was motivated by the men’s race.
Several years later, another man confessed to the crime and named four others as fellow perpetrators. The four men originally convicted – Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent – petitioned for post-conviction relief based on the new man’s confession.
The Alaska Superior Court held a five-week evidentiary hearing in fall 2015 during which the new confessor, William Holmes, testified that he and four other men had murdered Hartman. Eleven witnesses corroborated Holmes’ story.
Additionally, a former Fairbanks prosecutor and attorney for one of the men Holmes had implicated explained that the Fairbanks detective who had been the original lead investigator of the murder had “edited his recordings in such a way as to not record exculpatory information while using coercive techniques to obtain confessions,” and that the Fairbanks Police Department knew all about the detective’s “deceptive interviewing techniques.”
After the hearing, the judge said he wouldn’t rule on the case for seven or eight months and prosecutors said they would appeal any ruling the judge eventually issued. The four men were looking at an indefinite extension on their time in prison.
So just before Christmas 2015, the four men signed a settlement. In order to secure their freedom, they agreed not to sue over their imprisonment. In exchange, the state court vacated the men’s convictions, the prosecutors dismissed their indictments and the men were released. They are no longer charged with or convicted of any crime.
In 2018, the four men sued Fairbanks and the four police detectives who led the case against them. They requested damages based on a dozen claims including malicious prosecution, Brady violations and civil rights conspiracy and asked that the settlement be declared unenforceable.
But U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland dismissed the lawsuit, finding it was barred by precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court case Heck v. Humphrey. That case guides lawsuits over the constitutionality of convictions. In order to avoid conflicting rulings on the same crime, the Heck court found convictions can’t be found unconstitutional in civil court if that would invalidate a criminal conviction that is still in place.
Based on that, Holland found that the Alaska Superior Court had merely vacated the four men’s convictions because of the settlement but had never declared the convictions invalid.
But on Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit found fault with that logic. In a ruling by U.S. Circuit Judge Richard C. Tallman, a Clinton appointee, the panel found there was nothing left to invalidate since the state court had effectively declared the men’s convictions invalid by tossing them.
The ruling, joined by U.S. Circuit Judge N. Randy Smith, a George W. Bush appointee, did not reach the question of whether the settlement was enforceable.
Dissenting, U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra S. Ikuta, also a George W. Bush appointee, wrote she would have tossed the men’s claims because although their convictions may have been vacated, they were never declared invalid.
Tallman shrugged that off, pointing to the definition of “vacate” in Black’s Law Dictionary: “to nullify or cancel; make void; invalidate.”
The case goes back to the lower court to proceed on the men’s claims.
Matt Singer, the attorney who argued the case on behalf of the city of Fairbanks before the Ninth Circuit, expressed disappointment with the ruling.
The city of Fairbanks is disappointed by the split decision of the Ninth Circuit today,” Singer said in an email. “We respectfully disagree with the two-judge majority. The court misapplied the rule adopted by the Supreme Court in Heck v. Humphrey and we think it is settled law that a settlement agreement does not satisfy the favorable termination requirement for malicious prosecution claims. The city is evaluating its options, including potentially seeking review by the Supreme Court.”
Anna Benvenutti Hoffman with Neufeld Scheck & Brustin argued the case before the Ninth Circuit on their behalf. She said over the phone that she was “thrilled” with the decision and didn’t believe the settlement would be found to be enforceable.
“It obviously doesn’t advance public policy to let prosecutors and police officers conspire to prevent a hearing into these allegations that would prove that they engaged in unconstitutional conduct to send people to prison for crimes they didn’t commit,” Hoffman said.