Cleared convicts may get paid
Legislative panel OKs compensation bill
DENVER—Robert Dewey and other wrongly convicted people would see some compensation for the time they spent behind bars under a bill that won unanimous approval in a Colorado House committee Thursday.
The measure, inspired by the 18 years that Dewey spent in prison after being wrongly convicted of raping and murdering a Palisade woman, calls for compensating such people $70,000 a year for every year they are held.
For the 51-year-old Dewey, that adds up to $1.26 million.
“It just sucks, man. I don’t know what to tell you,” Dewey told the 11-member House Judiciary Committee while testifying for HB1230. “I’m not blaming anyone. The past is the past, the present is the present, and I don’t have a future without this compensation bill coming through.”
Dewey spent 18 years behind bars after being convicted in the 1994 murder of Jacie Taylor in Palisade, all the 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.
The case 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. He later won a $10 million settlement from the city of Fort Collins and Larimer County.
Attorney General John Suthers told the committee that after his office reviewed the Masters case it applied for and received a National Institute of Justice grant in 2010 to create a Justice Review Project. That project looked at several cases, including Dewey’s.
“The project has had the cooperation of every elected district attorney in all 22 judicial districts in the state,” Suthers said. “It was after a review of approximately 1,400 cases in 2012 that the project was led to its first exoneration, Mr. Dewey. It is our experience in those cases that lead us to believe that the structure that’s been set up (in the compensation bill) is an appropriate one.”
After news accounts of Dewey’s release, three state lawmakers decided Colorado should do what 27 other states have already done: Enact a compensation law to help the wrongly convicted get back on their feet.
Dewey and Masters, through a letter read to the committee, said technology and the stigma of being behind bars for so long has made it difficult, if not impossible, to find work.
Both said they struggle not only with coping with a changed society, but also trying to come to terms with all the years they’ve lost.
“Think about what you’ve done in the last 18 years,” Dewey said. “I’ve been in a box.”
Reps. Angela Williams and Dan Pabon, the Denver Democrats who introduced the bill, said the measure is the product of numerous conversations between prosecutors and defense attorneys.
As a result, qualifying for the compensation would be strictly limited to innocent people who were wrongly convicted, and not just people found not guilty of crimes.
“There’s some very serious safeguards that we’ve put into place here,” Pabon said.
The money for the compensation would come from the state’s Risk Management Fund, which is a kind of self-insurance. Receiving that compensation, however, doesn’t bar wrongly convicted people from filing civil lawsuits against the jurisdictions that convict them, Pabon said, adding that such convictions are rare and not likely to cost the state a great deal of money.
The bill also provides for tuition waivers, child support payments, attorney fees and other fines, penalties, court costs and restitution the wrongly convicted were ordered to pay.
As a result, the measure heads to the House Appropriations Committee for more discussion on its cost to the state, which is estimated to be as much as $200,000 a year.