If a convicted felon is exonerated, it means that his or her criminal conviction is overturned. A criminal conviction can make a huge difference to someone’s life, especially if it means that they spend years in prison. It can make it very hard to adjust psychologically and socially after release and some career paths or jobs may be impossible to pursue.
The most common reason why a convicted felon is exonerated is because evidence has come to light that reveals that the person should never have been convicted in the first place. In other states, exonerations have led to financial compensation for the years of incarceration as well as an ample apology on behalf of the state.
The most well known case of exoneration in Alaska is the case of the Fairbanks Four, a case which has still not yet been satisfactorily finalized and continues to rumble through the courts.
The Fairbanks Four, for those who are not familiar with the case, are four indigenous men who were charged and convicted of the murder of a 15 year old young man, John Hartman, in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1997. Three of the men were released from prison in 2015, while the fourth was already on parole by that stage and was released from parole and his conviction vacated. The justification for their release was that further evidence had come to light strongly suggesting that another group of four men were responsible for the murder. To date, these men have not been charged, ostensibly because there is insufficient evidence for their arrest.
Doubts over the agreement between the Fairbanks Four and the state
The deal that accompanied the release and exoneration of the Fairbanks Four included an agreement that they could not file a lawsuit against the city of Fairbanks for wrongful arrest and conviction for a crime that they did not commit. The four men, and organizations that had on numerous times attempted to obtain their release, had at all times argued that they had not murdered the young man back in 1995. By the time they were released, each of them had spent 18 years in prison.
Subsequent to their release, the Fairbanks Four argued that they had agreed to the deal under duress and filed a lawsuit in the federal court against the city of Fairbanks and the four police officers who had originally arrested them and charged them with the murder of John Hartman. They alleged that the city and state authorities had wrongly imprisoned them and the four police officers had forced confessions from them and used false evidence in order to obtain a conviction. They also alleged that the police officers had acted the way they did because of racial discrimination against indigenous people.
Exoneration without compensation
Their case was heard in October last year by a federal judge. The judge dismissed the lawsuit because he said that there was no clear indication that the four men had been proven innocent of the crime despite the evidence that others had been involved. Part of the deal made at the time the four were released was that they had agreed that the original conviction had been correct. It was this agreement that the judge used to disallow the lawsuit. The organization that has taken up the case of the Fairbanks Four is hoping that the federal judge’s decision will be overturned on appeal to the 9th Circuit, a process that might take a further two years.
Does Alaska lag behind other states for compensation after wrongful imprisonment?
Currently, there is no automatic process in Alaska that ensures that financial compensation is paid to anyone who has been wrongly imprisoned, despite attempts since 2015 to introduce legislation to address the anomaly. The only way redress can be sought is to file a lawsuit against the state or city authorities for wrongful imprisonment.
It has been pointed out that the treatment that the Fairbanks Four have received is in stark contrast to similar cases elsewhere in the country. In New York, for example, the Central Park Five, five men who were accused charged and convicted of a brutal assault on a jogger were released from prison after less than half the time that the Fairbanks Four served after it was determined that they had been wrongfully imprisoned. They sued New York City for $41 million and are currently suing the state of New York for a further 51 million dollars.
If arrested for any criminal offense, you should make sure you have effective representation by an Anchorage based criminal defense attorney who will do his best to ensure your rights are upheld. Contact the Law Office of Dattan Scott Dattan in Anchorage at 907-276-8008.