Prison time for a murder he didn’t commit robbed 52-year-old Robert Dewey of priceless moments, like the birth of his grandchildren and the burial of his only son.
For 17 years he was locked away. He entered prison an able-bodied 33-year-old nicknamed “Rider” because of his love of motorcycles. Now, Dewey uses a walker to support his lanky frame because of chronic back troubles that have required two surgeries.
His wrongful imprisonment means Dewey is owed nearly $1.2 million from Colorado, under a new state law he helped inspire. The total sum works out to be about $70,000 for every year he spent in prison. Last month, he received his first payment.
“It hasn’t brought me peace of mind. It hasn’t brought me closure,” Dewey said recently, his waist-long hair tied behind him, his goatee longer – and grayer – than in his prison mug shot. “It hasn’t made me forget what I went through. Nothing’s going to make that go away.”
Dewey is the first exonerated Colorado inmate to benefit from the new compensation law, which took effect in June. No one else has applied for compensation.
Every September, Dewey will get $100,000 until the state’s debt is paid. He’s finding that the money goes by fast, even though by his account he continues to live modestly.
“I still only have one pair of shoes,” he said.
He’s bought a used truck, a motorcycle, and repaid friends who helped him over the years. He’s given money to his parents and grandchildren, and he budgeted for a year’s rent for his basement apartment in Colorado Springs that he shares with his ex-girlfriend. He has to buy health insurance, or the state will deduct $10,000 from future awards.
He said the money is “just about” spent, but he declined to say how much he has left.
Laws to compensate the wrongly incarcerated are not uncommon. Including Colorado, 29 states and the federal government have some form of compensation.
“We wanted to right the worst kind of wrong the government can inflict on someone,” said Denver Democratic Rep. Dan Pabon, one of the lawmakers who sponsored Colorado’s compensation law.
Pabon said lawmakers settled on a compensation amount by weighing several factors, including health insurance costs and income tables to determine how much an average person makes a year.
When the bill was heard in committee this spring, Dewey’s testimony made some lawmaker’s tear up. He told them he found no use in being angry about what happened to him.
“Yeah, I’m pissed off. But what good is that going to do?” he said at the hearing.
Dewey was arrested in 1994 for the death of 19-year-old Jacie Taylor in June of that year in the Western Slope town of Palisade. Police found her partially clothed body in the bathtub of her apartment, having been strangled and raped.
Dewey did not cooperate with police initially, but he eventually told them he knew Taylor and had been to her apartment before. Investigators also recovered a blood-stained shirt in Dewey’s apartment and used it to build a case against him. All along, Dewey maintained his innocence.
He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole in Mesa County, but new DNA technology led to his release in April, 2012. The DNA tests also implicated another man who is scheduled for trial next year.
Stephen Saloom, policy director of the New York-based Innocence Project, which worked on Dewey’s case, said compensation laws are important because they help the wrongly convicted rebuild their lives.
“They literally have nothing. Typically they don’t have a home, a car, access to medical care, or education. Often, they don’t even know where they’re going to sleep that night,” Saloom said.
Looking ahead, Dewey hopes to one day own a home, maybe a log-cabin. Of the things he’s used his money on so far, giving some to his grandchildren makes him happiest. He’s gotten to meet two of his seven grandchildren.
But missing his son’s funeral six years before his release from prison continues to haunt him. He wonders whether he somehow could’ve prevented his son’s death in a car wreck if he had not been incarcerated. And thinking about that makes it impossible to find closure with any amount of money.
“How do you put a price tag on missing your son’s funeral – your only child’s funeral?” he asked.
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