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Robert Dewey case inspires bill to compensate the wrongfully convicted

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After nearly eighteen years in jail, authorities determined that Robert Dewey did not rape and murder nineteen-year-old Jacie Taylor in 1994. He was released in May of 2012 after DNA testing exonerated him. Now, his case has inspired a new bill that would allow individuals wrongfully convicted to receive compensation from the state.

"This sends two messages," says Representative Dan Pabon, a Denver Democrat who is crafting the measure. "One, that we are willing to admit our mistake as a state and compensate someone accordingly.... And two, that we believe wholeheartedly in our justice system...but as a human institution, we recognize that it is not perfect."

Pabon says he is working on the legislation with Representative Angela Williams, another Democrat. They hope to introduce it in the next few days.

The case of Dewey, which we covered last spring, is a clear example of why Colorado needs some sort of legislation that would provide compensation to those wrongfully convicted, Pabon says.

After the 1994 slaying, Dewey was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but he never stopped declaring his innocence, once even saying in trial, "There's still a killer out there."

With new DNA technology, authorities, almost two decades later, determined that he was right: Dewey was released last spring and a man named Douglas Thames was announced as a prime suspect in the case. Mesa County prosecutors formally apologized.

But an apology from officials is not enough, Pabon says.

"We hope that this statute...[would be] used rarely. But that when it is used, we hope that it can make the person whole again, if you can be made whole after an experience like this," says Pabon. "That's the goal of the legislation."

Continue for more details on the compensation proposal. If the bill passes, funding will come from the general fund and would require appropriation from the legislature through the joint budget committee, Pabon explains.

An individual wrongfully convicted would have to go through a specific judicial process to determine eligibility for the fund, he adds. It would be available only to those who are actually found to be innocent -- and not just individuals who weren't convicted due to a technicality, for example.

Pabon is still finalizing the details of the proposal, but he says if individuals were approved to access these funds, they would receive the equivalent of an annual salary for each year wrongfully spent behind bars. The payment wouldn't be a lump cash offering, but given on an annual basis going forward.

"We're in the minority of states who don't have this...and I think this is gaining more recognition," Pabon says, adding that for an individual like Dewey, "He's coming out of prison. He's got no job skills, no real training. He's free but penniless, and the likelihood of finding gainful employment in any meaningful way...that's gonna help him move forward with his life is extremely difficult."

A group called the Innocence Project says that 27 states have some form of compensation statute. Colorado does not -- and Pabon believes this is the first time a lawmaker here has proposed such legislation here.

"There's broad, bipartisan support for both the idea and the mechanism," he says. "Like anything else in the legislature, the devil is in the details."

Pabon says he and his co-sponsor are talking to a wide range of criminal law experts to "make this the best bill possible...with the ultimate goal, of course, of saying sorry for something that never should have happened."

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Heather Jensen arrested in deaths of two children left in up to 145 degree heat"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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