DENVER (AP) – Colorado’s first prosecutor-led DNA exoneration of a man wrongfully convicted of murder came after a review of nearly 5,000 cases in a review effort that is spreading nationwide.
During the two-year effort, Julie Selsberg, a senior assistant attorney general, and an investigator found one case that troubled them: That of 51-year-old Robert Dewey, a drifter convicted in 1996 and sentenced to life in prison for the 1994 rape and murder of 19-year-old Jacie Taylor in her apartment in the western Colorado city of Palisade.
Dewey was freed on April 30 after DNA used to convict him was retested with Selsberg’s help. The DNA, found on the victim, was traced to Douglas Thames Jr., who is serving a life sentence for the 1989 rape and strangling of businesswoman Susan Doll, 39, in Fort Collins.
Thames hadn’t become a suspect in Doll’s death until 1995, the year after Taylor died. He now faces charges of first-degree murder and sexual assault in Taylor’s death.
“What struck me is that it was an entirely circumstantial case, and the only DNA evidence that they had was far from certain,” Selsberg said of Dewey’s wrongful conviction. “And it was someone who maintained his innocence throughout the entire proceedings.”
It was a victory for Dewey, who warned a judge and prosecutors at sentencing: “There’s still a killer out there.”
It also was a win for the conviction integrity unit in Colorado, the Justice Review Project, funded by a $1.2 million federal grant. Dallas created the first such unit in 2007, followed by New York City; Cook County, Ill.; Santa Clara, Calif.; New Orleans and Suffolk County, Mass.
“What’s the cost of justice?” said Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, who with Attorney General John Suthers created the unit. “We found this case, and it made a huge difference.”
A neighbor discovered Taylor’s body in an overflowing bathtub on June 4, 1994. Police soon zeroed in on Dewey, a methamphetamine-using biker who had recently moved to Palisade and had been in Taylor’s apartment the day before.
A DNA expert testified that blood on Dewey’s shirt could have been Taylor’s. Prosecutors also argued that DNA found beneath Taylor’s fingernails came from an unknown suspect who, along with Dewey, killed Taylor.
From prison, Dewey appealed his conviction and asked that the DNA in the case be retested. He was denied.
Then came two high-profile Colorado exonerations unrelated to the unit. Timothy Masters was released from prison in 2008 after serving 10 years of a life term for a murder he didn’t commit. Tim Kennedy was released in 2009 after serving 13 years of a life prison sentence. Both efforts were led by defense attorneys and years of legal wrangling as prosecutors argued that justice had been served.
Morrissey and Suthers got the review panel going after the Kennedy case. Selsberg, a former prosecutor in New York’s Manhattan, recalled painstaking work during which investigators screened 4,977 convictions dating to the 1960s.
Selsberg said they discarded cases with guilty pleas and in which DNA evidence was not a factor or was indisputable. For hundreds of other cases where there was a possibility of innocence, Selsberg and other investigators traveled to counties across Colorado to examine prosecutors’ files, which contain evidence not presented at trial for legal reasons.
In January 2011, Danyel Joffe, Dewey’s court-appointed appellate lawyer, reached out to Selsberg. Joffe had convinced the New York-based Innocence Project, a longtime champion of DNA testing to exonerate wrongly convicted inmates, to fund testing of Dewey’s shirt. She told the integrity unit the blood was not Taylor’s.
Selsberg visited Dewey last year at a state prison in Limon.
“He has an incredible inner calm,” Selsberg said. “In your head, you have it in your mind that you’ll have somebody who will pound his fist on the table and scream, ‘I’m innocent!'”
The unit ordered more advanced tests on the DNA found beneath Taylor’s fingernails. The state crime lab reported the sample matched Thames, who had lived down the street from Taylor in 1994.
To eliminate the chance that Dewey was involved, investigators searched for a connection between him and Thames. None was found.
That’s when Richard Tuttle, who prosecuted Dewey, joined Joffe to ask a judge to vacate Dewey’s conviction and sentence.
“There was no big fight. We didn’t have to drag them into court,” Joffe said of prosecutors.
Contact information for Taylor’s family could not immediately be found, and prosecutors did not release that information to protect their privacy. Selsberg said their office includes a victim’s advocate and Taylor’s family was notified of the new testing.
The Colorado effort to review cases will continue until 2014, thanks to another $1.4 million federal grant. Those cases include kidnapping, manslaughter and sexual assault. Cases where an inmate pleaded guilty, which aren’t eligible for an appeal in court, are also eligible for review under the new grant.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that post-conviction DNA testing is not a constitutional right. Traditionally, many prosecutors have fought against analysis that could exonerate someone behind bars. But since 1989, there have been 290 DNA-based exonerations nationwide, many of them instigated by the Innocence Project.
“I think as prosecutors, we can’t put on blinders to the reality that despite the best effort of judges and prosecutors, defense lawyers and juries, that errors do occur,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who established his unit in 2010. “We should be unafraid, frankly, as prosecutors, because we’re not interested in preserving convictions. We’re interested in seeking justice.”
By P. SOLOMON BANDA, Associated Press
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