Former Fairbanks borough mayor Hopkins renews call for returning PFDs to Fairbanks Four

Bill Oberly (center) talks to a crowd outside the Fairbanks Rabinowitz Courthouse on the day of filing the innocence petition on behalf of the Fairbanks Four on Sept. 25, 2013. The men were eventually released in 2015.

Former Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins joined the head of the Alaska Innocence Project Bill Oberly today to call on the Legislature to pass a bill that would allow the men known as the Fairbanks Four to apply for the PFDs they missed while incarcerated for 18 years on charges that were later dismissed.

The two authored a community perspective appearing in today’s edition of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner calling on the Legislature to pass House Bill 127, by Rep. Scott Kawasaki, that would make it possible for people who’ve had their convictions overturned to apply for the dividends they missed while in prison. State law currently bars anyone who’s incarcerated for a felony from apply for a PFD.

Known as the Fairbanks Four–Marvin Roberts, George Freese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent–were released from prison in 2015, after having their convictions relating to the 1997 murder of a Fairbanks teenager vacated and dismissed. (Roberts had been released earlier in the year on parole).

They left prison through a settlement with the state that prevented them from bringing lawsuits against the state, the prosecutors or the police officers that played a role in their convictions. The four men rigorously challenged the convictions during a multi-week hearing in 2015 (current Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth was one of the attorneys representing the men) charging the state and police had lied, coached a key witness into lying and ignored many other alibi witnesses.

Their release even barred them from accessing traditional programs for inmates returning to society.

“The Fairbanks Four were released from prison with no money. They had been incarcerated for eighteen years on charges that were vacated and dismissed,” explained the editorial. “Today, they have no record of conviction. What they do have is an eighteen-year hole in their job resume. To begin to fill this hole, the House passed HB 127 to provide them with the eighteen PFDs that were wrongly taken from them.”

The bill passed with near-unanimous support from the House last year on a vote of 38-1 (Big Lake Republican Rep. Mark Neuman was the lone vote against the measure). A similar measure had been introduced in a previous session, too.

The legislation isn’t specific to the Fairbanks Four, though it’s inspired by their case. It would rework the application period for people who have their convictions dismissed, allowing them to retroactively apply for dividends they would have missed while incarcerated.

The legislation has no expected cost to the state because the state already sets aside a contingency fund for qualifying late dividend requests. Each man would be eligible for roughly $25,000 in past PFD payments.

Since arriving in the Senate on May 1, 2017, the bill has been assigned to three committees and has yet to be heard.

“The Senate must now do the right thing and correct this wrong that was done to these four men. The legislation will provide for the same correction of any wrongful convictions which may happen in the future. These men, who were traumatized by 18 years in prison for a crime they did not commit, should not be further victimized by the denial of their PFDs for that period,” the two wrote. “Sens. Pete Kelly, John Coghill and Click Bishop, these are your constituents. They are entitled to the money just like every other Alaskan. And they need it as much as any Alaskan. It is time to step up and fill this hole. It is time to give these Alaskans their share of the permanent fund dividend.”

Hopkins, a Democrat, challenged Coghill in 2016 for the Senate seat. Kawasaki, the sponsor of House Bill 127, is set to go up against Kelly this fall.

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