Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

No Compensation From The State

If Tim Masters' imprisonment and release had occurred in more than 20 other states, he might be eligible for hundreds of thousands of dollars, college funding and even job training.

But Colorado lacks any sort of law providing a financial "we're sorry" to people who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

Masters was released from prison on Jan. 22 after serving nearly nine years. His life sentence was vacated and his conviction overturned after special prosecutors concluded that skin cell DNA embedded in the clothing of 1987 murder victim Peggy Hettrick belonged to another man.

Prosecutors then dropped a murder charge against him, but he has not officially been ruled out as a suspect in a new investigation into Hettrick's death that is being conducted by Colorado Attorney General John Suthers.

In fact, Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson in dropping the murder charge on Jan. 25 specifically said Masters "should be investigated" along with other suspects, and that nothing exonerated him.

The situation frustrates Masters, since officials were quick to free him from prison.

"An apology would be nice," Masters said. "I can't get back nine and a half years."

Lack of exoneration hurts

That lack of finality is not only frustrating Masters, it's also playing a role as political leaders consider whether to compensate him for the time he spent in prison.

"Even though the conviction was vacated, he still was not exonerated," said state Sen. Bob Bacon, a Democrat representing parts of Fort Collins.

Special prosecutors who recommended that Masters be freed said Fort Collins police never gave prosecutors or Masters' original defense attorneys several pieces of evidence that could have persuaded a jury to acquit him.

Masters new defense team has also argued that police and prosecutors withheld other information helpful to Masters.

Two separate and independent investigations are reviewing whether police and prosecutors acted illegally or improperly during Masters' 1999 murder trial.

Monday, Bacon said he's received permission from Senate leadership to pursue legislation that could compensate Masters if he is declared innocent.

And Gov. Bill Ritter's office is investigating how other states handle wrongful incarceration situations.

No compensation law

Colorado has no such law. A spokesman stressed that the review is in its early stages and that any decisions about Masters would likely come only after Suthers' investigation is complete.

"We don't really know where the conversation will end up," said Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer. "We are just now starting to talk about it."

Bacon has been pursuing the matter for several weeks, researching how other states compensate people who have been wrongly convicted.

Iowa, California, Texas and Louisiana are among the states with some form of compensation system. Iowa grants payments of $50 per day of incarceration, plus lost wages and attorneys fees, as long as "no further proceedings can or will be" taken against the person.

California requires approval by a "Board of Control," and grants $100 per day of incarceration, tax free.

And Texas provides $50,000 per year of incarceration, plus mental health counseling, although the law permits people who have been wrongly convicted to forgo the law and sue the state.

Bacon said he's looking at Louisiana's compensation law as a model for Colorado. That law gives the wrongfully convicted $15,000 for each year in prison, not to exceed $150,000, along with job training, three years of medical and counseling services, and free tuition at a community or state college.

Bacon said his legislation might seek to amend the state's victim compensation and assistance fund laws so that the funds could be used to help those wrongfully convicted. Those funds contain about $1.5 million that could be used in Larimer County.

The complication: the money in those funds was paid in by people convicted of crimes, and is supposed to be used only for crime victims. Bacon said he may seek to change the law so Masters could access some of that money.

"I do think there ought to be compensation for job skill training, education and counseling services," Bacon said. "I do have support of leadership to try and find solutions to provide compensation for Tim Masters and those wrongfully incarcerated like him."

Lawsuit an option

Masters might have another option: a lawsuit. But several legal experts consulted by the Coloradoan said Masters would likely have a hard time suing under state law, which generally protects government workers from liability.

"Judges and prosecutors have absolute immunity in most cases," said Tami Tanoue, general counsel for the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency.

CIRSA helps Colorado cities and towns reduce the risks of lawsuits through training, education and pooling insurance.

Tanoue and other legal experts said police officers have "qualified immunity," which means they can be sued only if someone can show they acted far outside their duties.

"The only way to get around governmental immunity issues would be to argue 'outside the scope' or 'willful and wanton conduct,' both of which are high bars," Tanoue said. "They'd have to go beyond reckless as individual officers."

Tanoue and other legal experts, several of whom asked not to be quoted by name, said Masters might be able to bring a federal lawsuit, but that would require showing a pattern of misbehavior by government officials, not just an isolated event such as Masters' conviction.

Fort Collins city manager Darin Atteberry declined to discuss how the city would respond to a lawsuit, or discuss its possible exposure to legal action from Masters. Masters and his lawyers say it's too early to discuss a lawsuit, but haven't ruled it out.

"I'm not prepared to talk about the city's liability at this point. There are many, many issues that need to be resolved," Attebery said.

The Coloradoan