The price of freedom can be very steep in Alaska. Four innocent men, locked away for nearly two decades, had to sign away their rights to sue prosecutors who had wrongly charged them, in order to get out of prison.
The four were accused of beating 15-year-old John Hartman to death in Fairbanks in 1997, and the case generated much controversy in Alaska because all of them are Native-American.
They remained in prison even though the case against them fell apart in 2014, when a key government witness signed an affidavit saying that police coerced him into blaming the four and that he had made up the story. Two years earlier, a convicted killer had said he had seen someone else – and not the four men – commit the crime.
That was probably enough for a judge to exonerate the “Fairbanks Four,” but both sides knew that it could take more than six months for the legal process to run its course and the men to be freed.
After the case collapsed, prosecutors who had been fighting to keep the men in prison made a deal, Newsweek reported. They would let them walk free instantly if they signed away the right to sue the state for prosecutorial misconduct. One of them was already on parole, meaning he had to sign the deal, too, if his friends were to be released. He did sign it, as did the other three. They were freed in December. Their convictions were vacated.
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“They’d been wrongfully convicted of a crime and had served 18 years, and they just wanted to be out with their families,” Victor Joseph, the president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference – a Native American government — said of the Fairbanks Four. “The state knew that and took advantage of them.”
Legal experts aren’t surprised the men signed the deal.
“If you were in these defendants’ shoes, the pull of getting out of prison is just so strong that you’d be willing to sign just about anything,” Northwestern University Law Professor Steven Drizin told Newsweek.
Said Joseph, “All the cards were in the state’s hands.”
Such deals are rare, Drizin noted.
Some legal experts have called the deal unethical and reprehensible — but it is apparently legal.
The deal for the men got worse when the Alaska Department of Law released a statement saying, “This is not an exoneration. In this settlement, the four defendants agreed they were properly and validly investigated, prosecuted, and convicted.”
One of the men, Marvin Roberts, told Newsweek he tries to look forward, not backwards, in order to avoid growing angry.
“I know what I’ve lost,” Roberts said.
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