A Colorado man wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of a woman found strangled with a dog leash was exonerated on the basis of new DNA evidence and set free on Monday after spending more than 16 years behind bars.
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."
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 (400 km) 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."
Mesa County District Attorney Peter Hautzinger said before the court hearing that he felt "deep regret" for Dewey's conviction and told reporters his office was seeking an arrest warrant against Thames in connection with the Taylor slaying.
He explained that Thames was not arrested in the Doll case until after Dewey's 1995 arrest in the Taylor murder, and Thames' DNA information was not contained in a statewide database for inmates back then.
Dewey's exoneration came on the same day that two men who spent nearly 30 years in prison for a brutal sexual assault and attempted murder were declared innocent in Texas after DNA evidence pointed to other men.
Post-conviction DNA testing has exonerated close to 290 people in the United States since 1989, according to the Innocence Project, which works to reverse wrongful convictions.
In the Texas case, James Curtis Williams, 54, and Raymond Jackson, 67, had been sentenced to 99 years in prison for the November 1983 assault of a Canadian woman who identified them in a lineup as her attackers.
The woman had been abducted from a parking lot at gunpoint, repeatedly assaulted and then shot when she tried to flee and left for dead in a field.
Two other men who were connected to the crime through DNA testing have been charged with attempted capital murder, said Russell Wilson, supervisor of the Dallas County District Attorney's conviction integrity unit.