9th Circuit overturns lower court ruling, allows ‘Fairbanks Four’ lawsuit against city to continue

Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, George Frese, also known as the 'Fairbanks Four'....
Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, George Frese, also known as the 'Fairbanks Four'. (File/KTVF) (KTVF)
Published: Jan. 22, 2020 at 2:49 PM AKST
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The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court ruling that dismissed a suit by the ‘Fairbanks Four’ against the City of Fairbanks.

The district court’s decision, which led to the appeal, applied a legal precedent which stated that George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent, known as the ‘Fairbanks Four’ were not eligible to sue the City given that they had agreed to a settlement after their murder convictions had been overturned. Given this, they dismissed the Four’s suit against the City.

The 9th Circuit Court, however, reversed the dismissal. In a 2-1 decision which was published on Wednesday, the opinion published by the court determined that the Heck v. Humphrey precedent only applies if the plaintiffs face outstanding criminal judgment or pending charges. Given that the Four’s convictions had been vacated and their indictments dismissed, the panel ruled that the Heck law did not apply.

Matt Singer is the defense attorney for the City of Fairbanks, which is named as a defendant in the Four’s lawsuit. In a phone interview on Wednesday, Singer said that the City was disappointed with the 2-1 decision by the 9th Circuit Court. Circuit judges Richard Tallman, Sandra Ikuta, and N. Randy Smith presided over the case. Judge Ikuta issued the only dissent over the decision.

During the interview, Singer said that, “we respectfully think that the two judges got it wrong and misapplied the law.” He went on, discussing the City’s plans moving forward. “We’ll be reviewing the decision with the City and may seek reconsideration at the 9th Circuit or petition to a review with the United States Supreme Court. Barring a change from one of those appellate bodies, the case will go back to the federal district court.”

The judge’s opinion said in part, “We hold that the district court erred in applying the Heck rule to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims. We therefore vacate the district court’s dismissal order and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Mike Kramer, an attorney for the four men said in an interview, “It was great news to wake up this morning and get that decision. It was a lengthy decision but very well-reasoned.” Kramer said that now they will begin preparing for a jury trial made up of Fairbanks residents in an attempt to get some justice for his clients.

The decision will send the matter back to the district court and allow the case to continue.

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