Legislators, prosecutors, defense attorneys and other criminal justice experts are working out the final details of a bill to be introduced next week that would compensate those in Colorado who spend time in prison for crimes they didn't commit.
The legislation was spurred by the case of Robert Dewey, who was exonerated last year after spending 16 years behind bars for a 1994 rape and murder of a Palisade woman. New DNA testing last year proved he didn't commit that crime.
Dewey was released with only the clothes on his back and some aid from the Innocence Project, a New York-based non-profit legal clinic that has helped hundreds of others accused around the country win exoneration through DNA evidence.
That evidence in Dewey's case resulted in charges being filed against another suspect in the murder of Jacie Taylor, 19. The suspect, Douglas Thames, is currently imprisoned for s 1989 rape and murder in Fort Collins.
Since he was released in May, Dewey, 52, has survived on Social Security payments, food stamps and donations sent by individuals.
"I am trying to hold on until I get some money," said Dewey, who did not receive any job-training skills while in prison because he was serving a life sentence. He is also partially incapacitated by a back injury followed by surgery he had while in prison.
The legislation to compensate Dewey is proving to be very complicated, said Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, who is planning to co-sponsor a bill with Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver.
"We're not just crafting this for Robert Dewey. This is a much bigger issue," Pabon said. "Where you choose to draw the line on who is innocent differs between prosecution and defense."
Pabon said at this point the legislation won't affect anyone else in Colorado, but the legislation will send a message that "Colorado cares" like the 27 other states that have compensation for the wrongly convicted.
Pabon said the working group on the compensation legislation is still discussing whether exonerations covered by the legislation will include only those found innocent by new DNA evidence. He said it will not include those who weren't convicted due to a technicality.
Pabon said the aim of the legislation is to compensate only those who are "truly innocent."
An innocent individual would have to go through a judicial process to be eligible for the state funds. The group crafting the bill is still defining exactly what benefits the wrongly convicted will receive.
The working group is considering annual payments of around $50,000 for each year an innocent person spent behind bars. The legislation is also expected to include lifelong health insurance and payment for higher education. That could include vocational training as well as college.
Dewey said his wish is to go through training to be a motorcycle mechanic.
Beyond that, he said, "I'd like to move to Arizona or New Mexico and buy a little place, have some chickens and some critters — something to pet."
Dewey also is seeking compensation through a possible civil lawsuit. Attorneys for Dewey have filed a notice of claim that he is owed more than $18 million, alleging law enforcement officials in Mesa County and the Town of Palisade were reckless or negligent in investigating and prosecuting him.
Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/nlofholm