Yesterday a Colorado judge ordered the release of Robert Dewey, who had served 18 years of a life sentence for a 1994 rape and murder he did not commit. "I find that Mr. Dewey is factually innocent of the crimes of which he was accused in this case," the judge said. "Mr. Dewey is now again a free man." As with other wrongful convictions, police and prosecutors discounted evidence indicating they had the wrong man—in this case, a semen stain on the bed of the victim, 19-year-old Palisade resident Jacie Taylor, that did not match Dewey's DNA. But unlike prosecutors who refuse to admit their mistakes, even to the point of blocking DNA testing, Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger welcomed the decision to free Dewey. "This office prosecuted the best available suspect with the best available evidence," Hautzinger said. "Thank God we are able to be here today to release an innocent man."
That first part is debatable. The Denver Post reports that "prosecutors said at the time of Dewey's trial that they faced problems with poor evidence handling by Palisade police officers, the Mesa County Sheriff's Department and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation." Dewey was exonerated after his post-conviction lawyer, Danyel Joffe, approached the Justice Review Project, a division of the state Attorney General's Office created in 2009. A re-investigation found that the semen on Taylor's blanket matched the DNA of Douglas Thames, who is serving a life sentence for the 1989 rape and murder of Susan Doll in Fort Collins. Doll, like Taylor, was strangled to death (with a phone cord in Doll's case, a leash in Taylor's). The Post says "authorities only linked Thames to Doll's death in 1995, after a stash of Doll's underwear—complete with Thames' DNA—was found stashed in the duct work of one of his former homes." Thames moved from Fort Collins to the Grand Junction area after Doll's murder and briefly lived in Taylor's building.
About half the states have funds to compensate people who have been wrongly imprisoned, but Colorado is not one of them. Dewey, the first person to be cleared by the Justice Review Project, is expected to file a lawsuit against the agencies that investigated and prosecuted him. "Mr. Dewey's case seemed to be one where someone was convicted because a jury wanted to blame someone," Joffe, his lawyer, said at a press conference yesterday. "How do you set a price on 18 years of someone's life? It's something we're going to look at down the road." The Post notes that Timothy Masters, a Colorado convict who was freed in 2008 after serving a decade for a murder he did not commit, received a $10 million settlement from the city of Fort Collins and Larimer County.
Radley Balko examined the problem of wrongful convictions in the July issue of Reason.
[Thanks to Ari Armstrong for the tip.]