21 January 2008

Tim Masters To Go Free

Tim Masters was age 15 when he was arrested for the murder of Peggy Hettrick and is now 35.

Masters will be freed from prison tomorrow after serving 9 1/2 years for a murder he didn’t commit.

Via Jeralyn Merritt writing for Elevated Voices at 5280.com.

The Case

Masters was arrested in 1998 for the 1987 murder. The fact that this murder was a cold case, despite the fact that Masters was identified as a suspect almost immediately, is evidence of the weakness of the case, as is the fact that no new physical evidence or lay testimony appears to have been developed in the meantime. Masters was tried as an adult, convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1999. The evidence in the underlying case was weak based largely on circumstantial evidence and character evidence. The Rocky states:

He was finally arrested and convicted largely on the basis of a forensic psychologist's conclusions about violent writings and drawings Masters had produced as a teenager - including one the doctor believed amounted to a recreation of the crime.

The conviction was affirmed by the Colorado Court of Appeals (in 2001) and the Colorado Supreme Court (in 2002 in a 4-3 decision) (the following press release by the prosecution followed the affirmance).

This is a classic case in which several features of the criminal justice system: the scrict proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard, limitations on the introduction of propensity and character evidence, limitations on expert testimony with a weak scientific basis, appellate review and the legal duty of the prosecutor to disclose exculpatory evidence should have worked in Masters' favor, but failed to prevent his conviction or vacate it promptly.

Justice Bender's dissenting opinion from the Colorado Supeme Court in that case began:

The majority approves the mass admission of over a thousand pages of the defendant’s writings and drawings, many of which are repulsive and antisocial and others which are a high school student’s routine notebooks, assignments and doodles. Most of these writings and drawings have nothing to do with this grisly murder but instead paint the defendant as a boy obsessed with violence. Although I believe that proof of some of the defendant’s fantasies is admissible, many are not. The sheer volume of the inadmissible evidence so overwhelmed the admissible evidence that the defendant could not have a fair trial.

In my view the majority’s opinion, which admits all of the defendants’ writings and drawings, does great injustice to the purposes of C.R.E. 404(b) and opens doors to impermissible character evidence that previously had been closed. Because there exists a substantial risk that the defendant was convicted not for what he did, but for who he is, I respectfully dissent.

Justice Bender also noted that "The tendency of juries to overvalue other acts evidence is supported by empirical studies."

Masters will be freed after a post-conviction proceeding that unveiled prosecutorial misconduct, mostly in the form of failing to disclosure exculpatory evidence to the Defense. An appeal of a ruling exonorating Masters is unlikely.

Who Did It?

There are other possible suspects whose guilt was not aggressively pursued in the case. The most likely of the suspects are (1) Dr. Richard Hendrick, a surgeon now dead after committing suicide in 1995 while under investigation for a sex offense, and (2) Donald Long (Department of Corrections Profile here), a serial killer who committed several women with similar M.O. while in the area and is now incarcerated for life without possibility parole (in theory there might be a parole date well past any realistic life expectency for him), who was incarcerated shortly after the Hettrick murder at which point the spree of similar killings stopped.

Neither man is a threat to the public now. Hendrick is beyond the criminal justice process. Securing a subsequent conviction for first degree murder and then a death penalty sentence for Long would be expensive and rather unlikely to produce an actual execution given the sketchy evidence in the case, absent a new confession. Also, the fact that there are two strong suspects in the case, and a third suspect who was convicted and then exonerated, would likely create reasonable doubt in any effort to prosecute anyone other than these two suspects.

Now What?

There is no word on what compensation, if any, Masters may receive for his tragic wrongful conviction and incarceration.

The case to get him released established that his constitutional rights were violated by the failure to the prosecution to reveal exculpatory evidence to the defense in a manner that resulted in the wrongful conviction. But, prosecutors have wide immunity from criminal prosecution, the statutes of limitations in civil rights cases are sometimes applied grudgingly, and the recoveries for wrongful convictions in cases in the absence of a successful civil rights suit is often pitiful.

From the Rocky:

Sunday, Masters and his attorneys continued making plans for Tuesday's court hearing. David Wymore and Maria Liu went shopping, picking out slacks, a white dress shirt, a tie and a sport coat, and making arrangements for him to change out of his jail jumpsuit and into the dress clothes before the hearing.

In Buena Vista, where Masters was moved into a secluded unit by Colorado Department of Corrections officials, he was packing, putting the belongings he wanted - including family photographs - in box that will be mailed to him. He's leaving his 13-inch television and coffee pot behind.

"I don't need any of that on the street and I don't need any DOC clothes," he said.

He heads outside owning a '69 Chevy in unknown conditions he owned before he was incarcerated -- he spent eight years as a Navy mechanic before he went to prison, leaving him some skills.

Now, he must rebuild a career for himself, he must rehabilitate his reputation (harmed by the material revealed in the trial and his long experience as a prison inmate, even though he has since been exonerated of the crime itself), and make up for lost time in lost experience, in lost financial standing, and in lost trust and optimism about life. The State of Colorado owes Tim Masters a great deal. What will it do to make good on this moral obligation and correct the harm caused by its own mistakes, some of which were not so innocent?

Other Colorado Juvie Lifers

There are 48 juveniles serving life sentences for crimes allegedly committed as juveniles in Colorado, many based on felony murder charges which amounts to guilt by association with people who commit murder. Masters was one of the youngest at the time the crime was allgedly committed. I assume, but don't know, that Colorado's direct file statute which allows prosecutors to prosecute juveniles as adults without a judge's approval, was an important factor in the adult status of the charges against Masters.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Under the heading "Who Did It?" the writer provides as (1) Dr. Richard Kendrick. My question is "Who is Kendrick?" The physician in question has the last name: Hammond.