Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, and George Frese (the Fairbanks Four) collectively spent more than 70 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Their wrongful convictions were obtained as a result of staggering police misconduct.
These men filed civil rights lawsuits against the city of Fairbanks and the police officers in the case, but those suits were dismissed by the District Court by finding that case law prevents suit despite the fact that their convictions have been vacated.
This is the first time that case law has ever been interpreted in this way.
To reach its outlier decision, the District Court treated the “release-dismissal agreement” (RDA) the Fairbanks Four signed at the time their convictions were vacated as barring them from suing the police officers and city responsible for their wrongful convictions.
The District Court reached this decision despite the Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Town of Newton v. Rumery, which requires courts to treat such agreements with suspicion due to their potential for misuse and coercive nature that is inconsistent with federal law that places a high value on constitutional rights.
The RDA in this case is an extreme iteration of something that, even in the best of circumstances, is fundamentally suspect. In addition to placing the wrongfully convicted in an impossible position, the RDA attempts to prevent officials from being held accountable for their misconduct, leaving such actors undeterred in future cases.
There can be no doubt that the RDA is harmful not just to the wrongfully convicted but to society as a whole.