Colorado's Attorney General's Office says it has been awarded additional funding to expand the program that exonerated Robert Dewey after 17 years in prison.
Since being convicted, Dewey tried to appeal through the justice system, but nothing ever came about until phase one of the Justice Review Project (JRP) that began in 2010.
It was a process that began back in 2009 when money suddenly became available at the federal level.
"There was a pool of money available for organizations and state offices and we applied for it," Julie Selsberg, Senior Assistant Attorney General for Colorado, said. "We were the only pure prosecution office to be awarded some of that` grant."
A total of 15 organizations from across the country were awarded funds by the National Institute of Justice. Colorado's were aimed at identifying cases in our state where DNA testing could potentially exonerate a wrongfully-convicted inmate.
Nearly 5,000 cases of murder, manslaughter, and sexual assault were screened state-wide without applications for review. Under the strict rules of the JRP, further eligibility would be determined.
First, only the cases of inmates who maintain a claim of innocence without ever admitting any degree of guilt would be screened. Then, someone from the Attorney General's Office would look at any and all court documents related to the case.
If the review passed those eyes, staff would contact the inmate, any witnesses, and all attorneys assigned to the case. Upon further screening, it would be up to a panel of investigators and attorneys to decide if DNA testing was needed to continue the process.
In August of 2011, the JRP Panel voted unanimously to send the evidence from Dewey's case in for DNA testing. His case would be the only one to make it to the final step in the review process during the two year program.
"We couldn't have done this without the help and cooperation of the Mesa County District Attorney's Office, the Mesa County Sheriff's Office, CBI, innocence advocates, defense attorneys, and our staff," Selsberg said.
"It can never hurt to have another review of a case to make sure that a conviction was done in a just way."
On Monday, Dewey was released from prison months after DNA evidence had proved he never committed the brutal murder of Jacie Taylor, 19, back in 1994.
The development came years after a court of appeals affirmed his conviction and the State Supreme Court refused to hear his case.
Dewey most recently applied for post-conviction DNA testing in March of 2006. That motion was denied in district court before his appeal was denied two years later.
Ironically, Dewey's light at the end of his dark tunnel in prison brightened because of a review process that required no application or appeal.
"I hold no animosity," Dewey said in an exclusive interview with KJCT News 8 just minutes after walking out of the courthouse. "Everybody's been the better person and apologized [to me]."
"It really took more than one entity to make this happen," Prosecutor Rich Tuttle said of the JRP process. "Fortunately, there were some very dedicated sources at the Attorney General's office because this is such an old case that a lot of the details I forgot."
Tuttle was part of the original team of prosecutors that helped wrongfully convict Dewey in 1996. In fact, it was his first murder trail as a member of the District Attorney's office.
"Name an emotion, I've felt it," Tuttle told reporters at a press conference on Monday before Dewey's release. "It's not a good feeling to have played a part in convicting this man, but I'm very proud to have participated in this case."
Tuttle remembers receiving the call last year that Dewey's case was up for DNA review.
"I'm really proud of our team here and at the Mesa County Sheriff's Office. They really got after this like it was a murder that happened yesterday," he said.
Fourteen months later, after an intense investigation at the state and local levels, he apologized to the man he helped send to prison by asking a judge for justice.
"The only thing I'd change is [about this case] is I wish we would have reopened this case earlier," he said. "I wish this thing could've gotten reopened earlier and that we could've devoted all the resources sooner."
Despite only exonerating one inmate out of thousands of possible cases, Selsberg believes the program paid off.
"Was it worth it? Absolutely," she said. "Because, while we look at the Dewey case as a success, I also think that the checks and balances of reviewing all of the other cases is also a success."