Damages law eyed after Dewey case
DENVER — People wrongly convicted of crimes could get compensation under a bill that is to be introduced early this week.
The measure is inspired by the case of Robert Dewey, who spent 18 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murdering a Palisade woman, said Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver.
Pabon plans to introduce a bill along with two other Denver Democrats, Rep. Angela Williams and Sen. Lucia Guzman.
Under it, wrongly convicted people such as the 51-year-old Dewey could receive up to $60,000 a year for every year they served time for crimes they didn’t commit.
The intent behind the bill is more than for just compensating people who did nothing wrong, Pabon said.
“The scenario of Dewey demonstrated there was a gap in the law,” he said. “I have faith in our justice system, but it’s based on human decisions or eye witnesses who may be mistaken, changing perceptions and some people lie. That’s inherent in our system. We also have an appeals process to help ferret that out, but when that process fails too, this (bill) is kind of the last backstop.”
Dewey spent 18 years behind bars after being convicted in the 1994 murder of Jacie Taylor in Palisade, all while maintaining his innocence. Mesa County prosecutors asked the courts last year to free him after new DNA evidence proved he was not the killer.
Other DNA evidence pointed to a new suspect, Douglas Thames, who already is incarcerated for a similar crime in Fort Collins.
Dewey’s situation is similar to that of Timothy Masters, who was wrongly convicted in the 1987 killing of a Fort Collins woman and spent nearly a decade in prison for it. After he was freed from prison, Masters later won a $10 million settlement from the city of Fort Collins and Larimer County.
Pabon, an attorney, said while such cases are rare, they are high-profile enough to send a poor message about the state’s judicial system.
“We rely on our institutions to do the right thing,” he said. “When those institutions fail, we have to recognize that in order to keep our integrity and sense of justice, we’ve got to do something that says, ‘It is a human institution, and if we make a mistake we’ll make it right.’ “
Dewey, who now lives in Colorado Springs, said he favors the idea and intends to testify for the bill when it’s heard in committee.
Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said he also favors the concept, but he has concerns about how the bill might be written, particularly in how it will define an innocent person and in what compensation they should be due.
“I don’t want them to both sue the government and everybody else in sight, and collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Legislature,” Hautzinger said.
The bill sets specific guidelines that need to be met to ensure it aids only those truly wrongly convicted, and then aims to hold those state or local agencies financially accountable for paying compensation, Pabon said.
It also is to include provisions to prevent wrongly convicted people from collecting money from the compensation program and a court settlement, Pabon said, adding that the bill also has a provision to provide for college tuition assistance for the wrongly convicted people.