(Reuters) - An Alaska judge on Thursday dismissed the convictions of four men who spent nearly two decades in prison for the murder of a teenager, approving a settlement in which defense attorneys introduced new evidence casting doubt on their guilt.
The three Alaska Native men and an American Indian had maintained their innocence in the 1997 beating death of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman, with Alaska Native leaders saying the convictions were racially motivated.
Alaska Governor Bill Walker said on his official Twitter feed that he was pleased the Alaska Department of Law and the men’s attorneys had agreed to a deal that effectively tossed out the men’s convictions.
“I hope this settlement helps begin the healing process and provides some measure of justice and closure,” he said.
The men, known at the Fairbanks Four, were to be greeted on Thursday with a celebration at the local David Salmon Tribal Hall, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.
One of the four, Marvin Roberts, was released on parole this year. The other three, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent, have been imprisoned since their arrests in 1997 and were expected to be freed on Thursday.
Under terms of the settlement, the men agreed to withdraw their claim of prosecutorial misconduct and the state agreed not to retry them in connection with the crime, the Daily News-Miner reported.
Hartman, 15, was beaten on a Fairbanks street in October, 1997, and died a day later, according to a court record. Prosecutors said a group of young men had been prowling the streets, robbing a man before randomly attacking Hartman.
State prosecutors have maintained the convictions were properly obtained.
“What has been revealed is that there is new evidence submitted that suggests if they were tried again today, it would be more difficult to convict them,” the Department of Law said in a statement.
Hartman’s older brother, Chris Kelly, told the court on Thursday he opposed the settlement.
“If they are guilty, how can you justify making this deal?,” he asked the court, according to NBC affiliate KTUU-TV.
Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Robert Birsel