Exonerated Colorado Prisoner Receives $1.2 Million under New Compensation Law
by Joe Watson
A man who spent over 17 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit became the first Colorado prisoner to receive damages from the state under a new compensation law.
In September 2013, almost a year-and-a-half after his release from prison, Robert “Rider” Dewey, 52, collected the first $100,000 annual installment of $1.2 million he received from Colorado officials for his wrongful conviction.
“It hasn’t brought me peace of mind. It hasn’t brought me closure,” he said. “It hasn’t made me forget what I went through. Nothing’s going to make that go away.”
Dewey was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 1994 rape and murder of 19-year-old Jacie Taylor in the town of Palisade, Colorado.
After initially refusing to cooperate with the police, Dewey reportedly told detectives he knew Taylor and had been to her apartment, though he always maintained his innocence. Police recovered a bloody shirt in Dewey’s apartment and built their case against him around it, resulting in his conviction.
New DNA technology, however, not only resulted in Dewey being released in April 2012 but also implicated another suspect, Douglas Thames, Jr., who was subsequently charged with Taylor’s murder. Thames was already in prison serving a life sentence for raping and murdering another woman. Mesa County Assistant District Attorney Rich Tuttle had joined in a motion to vacate Dewey’s conviction after investigating the case.
“Yeah, I’m pissed off. But what good is that going to do?” Dewey said at a Colorado legislative hearing in support of the Compensation for Persons Wrongly Convicted bill. While in prison, Dewey’s son died in a car accident and he missed the births of seven grandchildren.
Once the bill passed and was signed by Governor John Hickenlooper, Colorado joined around 30 other states and the federal government in having a compensation law for the wrongfully convicted.
“We wanted to right the worst kind of wrong the government can inflict on someone,” remarked state Rep. Dan Pabon, a sponsor of the bill.
Pabon said a compensation amount of about $70,000 for every year an exonerated prisoner spent in prison was agreed upon by lawmakers after considering many factors, including health insurance costs and how much the average person earns annually.
“It’s quite an accomplishment getting the bill passed, not only for me and my family, but for guys coming up behind me,” Dewey stated.
Since collecting his first payment, Dewey has purchased health insurance, a used truck and a motorcycle, paid debts, given money to his parents and grandchildren, and budgeted a year’s worth of rent for an apartment that he shares with his ex-girlfriend.
Before the compensation law was passed he was living off monthly payments of $600 from Social Security and $87 in food assistance. Because his life sentence had barred him from vocational training in prison, he had no job skills when released. While incarcerated, he had rods inserted into his spine after suffering a back injury.
Stephen Saloom, policy director of the New York-based Innocence Project, which helped exonerate Dewey, said compensation laws help the wrongly convicted recover the lives they left behind.
“They literally have nothing,” Saloom noted. “Typically they don’t have a home, a car, access to medical care, or education. Often, they don’t even know where they’re going to sleep that night.”
Colorado’s Justice Review Project, which examined hundreds of criminal cases under a $2.6 million grant from the National Institute of Justice, had recommended DNA testing in Dewey’s case, which contributed to his exoneration. The project was suspended in May 2014 after funding ran out; no recommendations were made to reexamine evidence in any other case.
Sources: Associated Press, www.therepublic.com, Denver Post, The National Registry of Exonerations, www.innocenceproject.org
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