The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
It seems somehow fitting that a proposed settlement between the state and the four men convicted of John Hartman’s 1997 murder has been — at least for the moment — derailed by questions over what is permissible under the law. After all, the case of the men who have come to be known as the Fairbanks Four has never been clean, easy or straightforward. While supporters of the men would likely have cheered their release under any circumstances, Judge Paul Lyle was right to throw on the brakes. Proceeding on an uncertain legal footing would only have muddied the water further, leaving the door open for potential relitigation, challenges and more court battles.
The deal worked out between the state and the four men was simple on its face: immediate release from prison, with the state maintaining its position that the four were guilty of the murder and other crimes and the four withdrawing their claim of actual innocence and forfeiting any right to seek remuneration for what they saw as prosecutorial misconduct. It would have spelled the end of the case for good — by releasing the state, city and any other potential figures in the case from liability, there would be no potential for a civil suit related to the manner in which the case was investigated and prosecuted.
But that resolution would be too clean in a case with so many twists and turns already. Upon reviewing it, Judge Lyle rightly saw the biggest question it raises: If the four men were originally convicted, the state was maintaining their guilt and the men were waiving their claim of innocence, under what legal grounds could they be released? Furthermore, part of the agreement would be that the state could retry the men if new evidence arose indicating their guilt — how would that not violate prohibitions against double jeopardy?
It’s easy to see why such a deal would be attractive to both sides in the case. An early release from prison would be a big symbolic victory for the four, as even though the state would have maintained their guilt, it would indicate that enough was wrong with the case that authorities saw fit to set the men free. And every day not spent in prison would be one the men could use getting back to as close to a normal life as possible, attempting to move on from the episode that defined two decades of their lives. For the state, it would be a huge relief to not have to worry about the potential for a massive civil judgment if the men ultimately proved successful in seeking a declaration of actual innocence.
For all its perks, however, the deal also makes both sides look a bit worse: The four would be giving up their claim to actual innocence, which has long been the cornerstone their supporters have rallied around. Relinquishing that claim would look to some like an acknowledgement that the men’s hands were not as clean as they and their supporters had maintained. And as for the state, while its attorneys could claim to still be assured of the men’s guilt, the fact they were willing to strike a deal granting early release for the men seems a tacit admission that there were major problems with the case’s investigation and prosecution that create serious worries of a civil jury awarding the men damages for their incarceration or treatment by the judicial system.
There may yet be precedent that would allow the deal to go forward. But no one should labor under the misapprehension that even if it does, it will remove the cloud hanging over both the men and the state’s prosecution of the case. At this point, no settlement can resolve the questions about both sides of the case lingering in the minds of many Alaskans — and that suggests any healing and regaining of trust in the justice system may be a long time coming.