No En Banc Detour for Malicious-Prosecution Suit by ‘Fairbanks 4’

Aerial view of Fairbanks, Alaska. (Courthouse News photo/Chris Marshall)

(CN) — The Ninth Circuit refused Friday to reconsider a decision that lets four men sue the city of Fairbanks, Alaska, for malicious prosecution after they spent 18 years in prison for a murder they didn’t commit.

Four Alaskan natives and one Native American from the lower 48 states were convicted for the 1997 murder of John Hartman, a 15-year-old who was beaten to death on the streets of Fairbanks. Several years after their conviction, another man confessed to the crime and evidence came to light of manipulated interview recordings and coerced confessions.

Still, the four men — Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent — remained in prison as a judge delayed ruling on their request for release and prosecutors vowed to appeal any ruling that would free them.

To secure their liberty, the men agreed to settle with the city in 2015. The settlement forbade them from suing the city and stipulated that their convictions were “properly and validly entered based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Despite that deal, the four men sued Fairbanks and the four police detectives who led the case against them in 2018. 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 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case Heck v. Humphrey, which requires that convictions be invalidated before prosecutors or police can be sued for constitutional violations related to wrongful convictions.

In January, a divided three-judge Ninth Circuit panel concluded the 2015 settlement does not bar the four men from suing the city. Writing for the majority, U.S. Circuit Judge Richard C. Tallman, a Bill Clinton appointee, found nothing was left to invalidate because the state court had effectively declared the men’s convictions invalid by tossing them.

On Friday, the Ninth Circuit denied the city of Fairbanks’ petition for an en banc rehearing. The decision was opposed by two Ninth Circuit judges, including George W. Bush appointee Sandra Ikuta, who dissented from the three-judge panel’s decision in January.

Writing for the dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Lawrence VanDyke, a Donald Trump appointee, noted that the plaintiffs agreed in a 2015 settlement that their convictions were “properly and validly” secured.

“This concession by the plaintiffs that their convictions were valid cannot mean that their convictions were invalidated—it means the opposite,” VanDyke wrote.

The Trump appointee complained the majority’s ruling will create a new exception to the bar on wrongful conviction-related claims in nine states and two protected island territories under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction.

“Now, in every situation where a criminal defendant’s conviction is ministerially vacated without any judicial determination that the conviction was actually ‘invalid,’ this new exception casts into doubt the Heck bar’s applicability,” VanDyke wrote.

The judge noted that several states in the Ninth Circuit have laws that automatically vacate some convictions after a defendant has served his or her sentence. This opinion could eliminate the bar on suing for constitutional violations related to those convictions, he complained.

“We should have considered this inconsistency en banc before cementing it as binding precedent in our circuit,” VanDyke wrote.

Reached by email, plaintiffs’ attorney Anna Benvenutti Hoffmann faulted Fairbanks for spending the last two and half years fighting to dismiss this lawsuit on a technicality, rather than confronting the “shocking and pervasive police misconduct” that led four innocent men to be wrongly imprisoned for a collective 72 years.

“We look forward to proving at trial how Fairbanks police officers railroaded four innocent men,” Hoffman said.

Fairbanks’ attorney Matthew Singer of Holland & Knight in Anchorage, Alaska, did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.

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