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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tim Masters - One More Christmas in Prison

Tuesday marked the ninth Christmas Tim Masters has spent behind bars. If there's any upside, it's that he spent it at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility, where he has a television, a typewriter and other inmates to talk to. If he'd stayed at the Larimer County Detention Center, he would have had, at best, a book and a lonely 23-hour lockdown, just like every other day he spends there when he has a court appointment in Fort Collins. His family and his legal team hope it's the last Christmas he'll spend in a cell.

By this point in Masters' story, it's clear that nothing can be taken for granted. For his family, there have simply been too many disappointments, too many maddening delays and -- as any of his supporters will tell you -- too many acts of deception and misconduct by those who put him in prison in the first place. At no other point since he was arrested more than a decade ago have his supporters allowed themselves to feel as optimistic about his chances for vindication as they do now.

Last week, Masters and his family were once again crowded into courtroom 2-A in the Larimer County Courthouse. Although no one spoke of it, there was a palpable hope that he would be allowed to go home for Christmas. Every hushed conversation between legal teams took on new significance for Masters' aunts, uncles and cousins. "Yesterday, it was pretty high," said Betty Schneider, one of Masters' aunts, describing her optimism, especially when all the lawyers left the courtroom to confer in the hallway. "I thought maybe when they went out, that they're getting together and would say they would let him out until we have a new trial. I kind of hoped that's what they were doing, but we found out that it was something else."

Such disappointments are practically mundane by now. Masters had been labeled a killer since Feb. 11, 1987, the day he found a woman's dead body in a field behind his house but failed to report it to police. He was 15 years old and said he thought it was fake. He maintained his innocence the next day in a nine-hour police interrogation. He maintained it in 1992 when he was again questioned by detectives for two days. He maintained it when he was arrested in 1998, and when he stood trial in 1999. He maintained his innocence through two failed appeals after his conviction, and he maintains it today.

It hasn't done any good. Masters' effort to win a new trial has dragged through court since May 2003 and over the summer, Schneider and other family members said that they'd long ago learned the protective benefits of pessimism when it came to considering Masters' future. As Tim's uncle, John Masters, put it at the time, "I feel like I've been kicked in the stomach by this judicial system. I don't want to get knocked on my butt again."

In the last six months, his former lawyers have gone so far as to flatly say he was framed for murder and that some of the most well-respected names in local law enforcement intentionally withheld, destroyed or manipulated evidence so that Masters would spend his life in prison.

Even the special prosecutors assigned to the case agree that Masters' defense has made valid points, at least to a degree. At the end of testimony last week, prosecutor Michael Goodbee told Judge Joseph Weatherby that he is prepared to agree with the defense -- likely as soon as this week -- that some violations of discovery rules have taken place.

Although Masters wasn't let out of prison for Christmas, Goodbee's announcement was a welcome gift.

"We're very optimistic now," Schneider said later. "We feel there's a very good chance he'll get a new trial."

As the hearings went into recess for the remainder of the year, the case stood at a pivotal -- and frustrating -- point. Masters' new defense attorneys, David Wymore and Maria Liu, rested their case after months of testimony. They introduced reams of documents and other evidence that they said was intentionally withheld from Masters' lawyers during the 1999 trial, information they said could have been used to establish reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors. Their case was strong enough on certain points that Goodbee conceded two of them on cross examination last week. Questioning Erik Fischer, Masters' former lead attorney, he agreed that the defense should have been given hundreds of pages of so-called "extractions," or supporting opinions and documents, that supplemented a report from the state's expert witness. He also said Fischer should have been given a transcript of a tape-recorded conversation between Masters and his father during a break in his interrogation on Feb. 12, 1987.

Goodbee didn't elaborate on what his stipulations of discovery violations would be. If so, it's a partial concession. Wymore hoped to expedite the case by blocking the testimony of the prosecution's witnesses, most notably those of county judges Terry Gilmore and Jolene Blair, by arguing that whatever they have to say is irrelevant. He was unsuccessful.

Gilmore and Blair prosecuted Masters in 1999 when they worked for the Larimer District Attorney's Office. Along with police Lt. Jim Broderick, who built the case against Masters when he was a detective, they have been accused of hiding evidence.

Both of Masters' former lawyers testified that all of the information that wasn't disclosed to them was not only relevant and exculpatory to their client, but mandated for disclosure by federal and state law.

With the ball in the prosecution's court, it's still not clear if the judges will testify, or what strategy they will use to counter Wymore's case. Goodbee can argue that the disputed material wasn't subject to disclosure, or that the defense did in fact receive information they said they hadn't.

The case's continuance into 2008 popped the balloon of optimism Masters' family had been floating, although they knew it was unrealistic to expect the prosecutors to stipulate to Wymore's entire case and move for Masters to be released in time for Christmas pending a new trial.

It may have been another letdown, but they were bolstered by their belief that by this time next year he will not be in prison, but at home.

"We are just real sure on that, that this is going to be the last time," Schneider said. "He's had enough Christmases behind bars."

The background

Tim Masters was convicted in 1999 of murdering and mutilating Peggy Hettrick in 1987, when he was 15 years old. The conviction was upheld as far as the state Supreme Court, but Masters has been in hearings since 2005 trying to get a new trial. He argues that prosecutors and police withheld information from his defense lawyers that would have resulted in an acquittal.

Prosecutors from the Adams County District Attorney's Office are representing the state since the entire Eighth Judicial District has been removed from the case due to conflict of interest.
Greeley Tribune


Anonymous said...

Sounds like this case takes on alot of things from bad police all the way up to a supreme court. How could so many wrong judgements and nistakes have been made? And all without any evidence. natzees never die they just move onto other countries and use better cover. I better watch what I write I might be next on their list of people they might take to kindly to.sometimes cops just take things too personnal and are always too egotistical to be able to do things right and with immunity it is so easy to get that way.

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