Robert “Rider” Dewey tasted freedom last week, even touched a tree for the first time in 16 years.
Dewey was serving a life sentence for the 1994 rape and murder of 19-year-old Jacie Taylor in her Palisade apartment after he was found guilty at trial on Oct. 16, 1996.
The jury’s verdict relied heavily on DNA evidence collected at the scene. In a fascinating twist, the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department’s efforts to preserve the evidence in the case eventually played a role in making sure that Dewey was exonerated.
As detailed by The Daily Sentinel’s Paul Shockley, we have some fascinating insight as to what caused investigators to focus their efforts on a suspect who, it turns out, was innocent, as well as the thinking of the prosecutors who took Dewey to trial and the jurors who eventually convicted him.
We also learned much about the advance of our understanding of DNA and its use in the courtroom in the years since Dewey was found guilty.
In Dewey’s trial, the jury relied on an expert witness who testified blood stains found on a work shirt belonging to Dewey were consistent with a mixture of blood from Dewey and Taylor. The expert said that the blood could have come from approximately 45 percent of the Caucasian population at the time.
Another expert said there was no evidence that Taylor’s blood was on the shirt.
Advances in DNA technology have allowed us now not only to exclude Dewey as donor of the DNA found on a blanket in Taylor’s apartment, but to identify another suspect. Testing of the DNA led investigators to an offender database and then to Douglas Thames Jr., now serving time for the 1989 rape and murder of Susan Doll in Fort Collins.
Thames also was identified as a potential contributor of DNA found under Taylor’s fingernails and items used in the crime.
Dewey’s luck turned a decade ago, when a Denver attorney, Danyel Joffe, took an interest in his case, as did the New York Innocence Project, which is dedicated to using DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongly convicted.
Then the Justice Review Project of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office became involved in 2011.
The outcome was Dewey’s exoneration, which came to pass with the involvement of the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department.
Given that Dewey lost 16 years of freedom, it’s tempting to conclude the judicial system must have failed.
Certainly the system isn’t perfect, but in this case it demonstrated a well-considered capacity to reconsider that which was settled. It’s something the judicial system does all the time, this time with a remarkable outcome.
Now Daniel Thames Jr. faces a murder charge in connection with the death of Jacie Taylor. Like every other defendant, Thames deserves the presumption of innocence and competent representation in a fair trial.
The state of Colorado, meanwhile, has every right to expect that its representatives in the judicial system will conduct themselves responsibly and with care.
We have no reason to think Thames, or the people of the state of Colorado, will get any less.