Robert "Rider" Dewey walked out of a courthouse in Grand Junction, Colorado, a free man after a judge found him innocent of the 1994 killing and said his exoneration marked a "historic day" for the state.
"Mr. Dewey spent 6,219 days of his life incarcerated for a crime he did not do," Mesa County District Judge Brian Flynn said during the brief hearing. "This is a reminder to the entire system that it's not perfect."
Flynn said prosecutors had not committed misconduct, Dewey had been represented by good defense attorneys, and an impartial jury had heard the case but added: "Despite all these things, the system didn't work."
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Prosecutors announced earlier on Monday they were seeking an arrest warrant for a new suspect in the 1994 killing who was identified by DNA testing and is already serving a life sentence for a similar 1989 murder.
Dewey was sentenced to life without parole for the rape and murder of 19-year-old Jacie Taylor in the western Colorado town of Palisade. Taylor's partially clothed body was found in her bathtub in June 1994. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled with a dog leash.
Dewey, wearing a blue dress shirt and slacks and long brown hair held in place by braids, left the courthouse with his attorneys and pen-pal girlfriend Angela Brandenberg, who had not met him in person until Monday's hearing.
His first act of freedom was to inhale deeply from a burning sprig of sage lit by Brandenburg, which he described as a Native American ritual.
"I get to step outside there, touch a tree, get a dog and kiss my girl," he said on his release. A smiling Dewey also told reporters he was not angry about the injustice, asking, "What good would it do me?"
"They threw me into a dark hole with just a pinhole of light," he said. "I had to stay positive."
Dewey said his immediate plans were to take his mother, stepfather and Brandenberg to the best restaurant in Grand Junction, about 250 miles west of Denver, and order a filet mignon.
The latest DNA testing ruled out Dewey as the source of blood found on a shirt that also bore blood stains from Taylor. The original DNA analysis had already excluded him as the source of semen recovered from the crime scene and of scrapings taken from under the victim's fingernails.
New analysis showed those additional samples matched the DNA of Douglas Thames, who is serving a life sentence without parole for the 1989 rape and strangulation of Susan Doll, 39, of Fort Collins, according to court papers filed in the Dewey case.
'I WISH YOU THE BEST'
In asking for the conviction to be set aside, Assistant District Attorney Rich Tuttle, who handled the original prosecution, told Dewey: "I deeply regret what the system did. I wish you the best and I mean that sincerely."
Dewey replied: "Thank you, sir."
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