The worst thing you can say about a legal system is that it railroads defendants - convicts and sentences them without allowing juries to hear the full story and without investigators pursuing equally viable suspects. That's why the case involving a Colorado prisoner named Timothy Lee Masters is so important - and why it is critical that he be granted a new trial.
Masters, sentenced to life in prison in 1999 for the 1987 murder in Fort Collins of Peggy Hettrick, may or may not be an innocent man. But it is increasingly clear that his defense was deprived of information that would have materially helped it cast doubt on the prosecution's theories.
It is equally apparent that investigators concentrated on Masters to the point of downplaying the significance of another neighborhood resident whose behavior should have raised equally bright red flags.
Late last week, attorneys pushing for a new trial for Masters revealed what is only the latest disturbing evidence that prosecutors weren't forthcoming with the original defense team. Two months after Hettrick's death, a woman reported that a man exposed himself to her not far from where the body was discovered. But Masters' lawyers were never provided details of this incident. Nor were they told that the offender's description matched one from another incident at the very bar where Hettrick was last seen alive.
Court hearings in the past few months have already established, at least to our satisfaction, that prosecutors:
Failed to inform Masters' original defense of the perverse behavior of Dr. Richard Hammond, who killed himself in 1995 after his arrest in a sexual exploitation case. The doctor was a serial sex offender who would film women in his bathroom and taking showers without their knowledge, who had an abnormal fascination with women's genitals, and who, like Masters, lived not far from the victim at the time of the '87 murder. Astonishingly, however, a list of 94 suspects compiled by police did not even include Hammond's name.
Failed to tell the defense that a plastic surgeon the prosecution had consulted apparently disputed its theory of how the murder victim was mutilated. In an interview two years ago, the plastic surgeon deemed the theory "almost impossible."
Failed to inform the defense that J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist whose analysis was essential to the conviction, worked hand-in-glove with prosecutors, who even submitted the arrest warrant to him for approval.
Failed to provide the defense with a copy of a 274-page report by Meloy, which included notes and underlying research, offering instead summaries of his conclusions that minimized the defense's ability to attack the psychologist's thesis.
Many other questions plague this case. They involve allegations of destruction of evidence that might have allowed DNA testing, lost evidence found on the victim, destruction of evidence from the Hammond case, possible false claims regarding an FBI profile, and more.
These matters are especially important because the case against Masters was almost entirely circumstantial. No DNA, blood, hair or other significant physical evidence linking him to the victim or the murder scene was ever found.
Meanwhile, forensic psychologist Meloy's analysis, so crucial to the prosecution's theory, at times has the tone of a pulp crime thriller. Portentous but debatable conclusions are scattered throughout, such as: "Sexual homicides are often unconscious displaced matricides"; "\[the victim] also resembled his deceased mother, which is of enormous psychological significance . . ." ; and, Masters "knows the distinction between slicing and stabbing, terms that generally would not be distinguished by the lay person."
To be sure, the circumstantial evidence against Masters is disturbing, too. His fantasy life, which he recounted in voluminous words and drawings, involved violence, torture and the humiliation of women. But men cannot be convicted for fantasies, no matter how weird or sick.
Judge Joseph Weatherby will determine whether Masters should get a new trial. For the sake of the reputation of Colorado justice - as well as the overriding right of a long imprisoned man to a fair trial - we hope that his answer is yes.
Rocky Mountain News