The Denver Post
GRAND JUNCTION — When Robert Dewey's cellphone jangles in his pocket, Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" is the ringtone.
Dewey said it's just one way he has to remind himself that he really is free after spending 16 years in prison proclaiming his innocence for a gruesome rape and murder that put him there.
"It was like being in a roomful of people, like, I am here and I'm yelling and you can't hear me," Dewey told a classroom of criminal justice students Monday evening at Colorado Mesa University.
His visit marked the first time Dewey, 51, has spoken publicly about his ordeal in the town where he was convicted in 1996 and exonerated in April.
Dewey told the students — many of whom were still in diapers when he went to prison — that his main message is that they should "look beyond the cover of any book and read a few chapters."
Dewey is heavily tattooed. His hair hangs below his waist. He is back to wearing the biker leathers that were the costume of his preprison existence. And he hasn't toned down the tough-guy talk.
"Robert's the same. He hasn't changed a bit," said Steve Laiche, one of the attorneys who originally represented Dewey and who continued to work on Dewey's defense while he was in prison.
Laiche also teaches the criminal justice class where Dewey spoke in a rambling, profanity- and humor-laced question-and-answer session that ended with one student handing him $20, others giving him hugs and handshakes, and some posing for cellphone photos with him.
"How does it feel to be a celebrity," one student asked and got only a chuckle in response.
Dewey was anything but a celebrity in 1994 when 19-year-old Jacie Taylor was murdered. Her body was found in her Palisade apartment in a neighborhood that was the epicenter of a growing methamphetamine subculture.
Dewey was identified as a suspect based on the changing stories of other meth users and on his suspicious and furtive behavior. Blood on the Texaco shirt he often wore at the time was identified as possibly being Taylor's based on early DNA tests.
Dewey candidly told the students Monday that the blood on the shirt was his — a result of shooting up drugs.
That was proven to be true, and Dewey was exonerated after much more sophisticated blood testing also showed DNA samples in Taylor's apartment belonged to a man now serving a 40-year sentence for the murder of another woman in Fort Collins. Douglas Thames, who also lived near Taylor, is going to be tried for her murder.
Since shortly after he was released, Dewey has been living in Colorado Springs with a girlfriend he knew before he went to prison and her 8-year-old son. He had back surgery a month ago to remove pins and screws that a prison surgeon used to treat injured discs. A still ruddy scar slices through a dragon tattoo on his back. He lives on $698 a month in disability payments.
His focus has been on rebuilding an old Harley-Davidson motorcycle because it was imaginary motorcycles that got him through prison. He spent much of his time behind bars fantasizing about riding.
"I would picture myself walking down a sidewalk lined with bikes, and I'd pick one and ride away," he said.
Dewey said he's not sure what he wants to do with his life now. Decisions come hard because he had few opportunities in prison to make choices. He "blows circuits" on something as simple as picking food from a menu, much less choosing a career after he received no training in prison because of his "lifer" status.
Dewey may be telling his story next to the Colorado legislature. Several legislators are working on a measure that would give compensation to the wrongly convicted who are exonerated based on new DNA testing. There are 23 states that offer such compensation.
Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957, email@example.com or twitter.com/nlofholm
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
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.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The Denver Post