Members of the state House judiciary committee Tuesday voted unanimously in support of a bill that would see state compensation paid in a lump sum to wrongly convicted Coloradans, a change supporters argue helps exonerated prisoners without bank accounts and financial credit adjust to life beyond prison walls.
Robert Dewey testified in favor of Senate Bill 125 last month when it passed in the Senate judiciary committee and he was the main witness on Tuesday at the House committee as well.
Dewey was wrongly convicted in 1996 of the brutal rape and murder of Palisade teenager Jacie Taylor. He was sentenced to life in prison and served 18 years until, in 2012, he was found to be innocent of the crime.
He sat at the witness table next to bill sponsor Rep. Dan Pabon, a Denver Democrat. Dewey calmly recounted his experience trying to put things back together in his life after he was released.
Dewey was awarded $1.2 million from the state. The money comes to him in annual installments of $100,000, minus taxes. But it’s not like receiving regular work paychecks. It’s tough to get loans. It’s tough to buy a house.
Dewey wears his hair in a long pony tail. His arms are heavily tattooed. He injured his back in prison and uses a cane to walk.
Dewey said that, after the news came that he was being released, guards took him to use the phone at the Denver jail. Prison phones are simplified machines, Dewey explained. They hang on the wall and you don’t dial people’s numbers directly. The numbers of your contacts are pre-programmed. You dial the number one for your mom, the number two for your cousin, and so on. The Denver jail phone was apparently a mobile phone.
“So I picked up the phone and, I don’t know how to use it,” he said. “So I had to ask the jailers, ‘Well, how do I do this?’ and they’re looking at me as if I were stupid. I said ‘Man. I’ve been locked up for 18 years. I don’t know how to use the damn phone — don’t have a phone, don’t know how to work one, don’t have a phone number. You know what I mean? What do you do?”
“It’s my birthday today,” Dewey said near the end of the hearing, as if he were simply thinking out loud.
“Happy birthday,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, smiling.
Committee members looked at him and nodded.
Two thousand wrongly convicted people in the United States have been exonerated since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Last year brought 166 state and federal exonerations, the highest number in the 30 years they have been tallied.
Not all states pay compensation to the exonerated, and compensation rates vary broadly. Stateline reports that Indiana is attempting this year to pass two bills awarding compensation but that both bills seem unlikely to pass into law.
Tough-on-crime Texas has paid more than $93 million to wrongfully convicted individuals in the last 25 years.
“Mr Dewey, I want to say it’s good to see you again,” said Rep. Joe Salazar, a Thornton Democrat. Salazar sat on the same House committee in 2013 when it passed the bill that placed Colorado among the states with laws offering financial compensation to the wrongly convicted. Dewey testified at committee hearings that year and he appeared alongside Gov. John Hickenlooper at the bill signing.
“I’m really sorry to hear what you’ve been going through these past years since the original bill passed,” said Salazar. “Man, it’s really good to see you, but my heart breaks, too.”
Pabon told the committee that the subject of the bill should focus lawmakers.
“I’ve been here seven years, and have read a couple thousand bills over that course of time, but this is one of the few bills — and the bill in 2013 — where I can remember every single aspect, every single witness, the background, the history to it all,” Pabon said. “You committee members have discussed it for a few brief minutes and I hope you got to experience some of that, too.
“But it’s not just about this bill,” he said. “It’s not just about Robert Dewey. This is about recognizing how powerful our roles are…That what we do has monumental consequences that sometimes we can’t ever comprehend until we see a story like this. It’s a reminder — for however busy we are, as many bills as we have, as oftentimes we feel bogged down in the minutiae and we’re trying to get through one bill or another — that these bills really do matter… This case is a gift.”
Pabon was drawing in part on closing remarks made by Rep. Cole Wist, a Republican from Centennial, and Mike Weissman, a Democrat from Aurora.
“It’s the Lenten season for me in my religious tradition. I pray for peace and grace in your life,” Wist told Dewey. “I’m struck by how peaceful you are, and I’m sure you have had to struggle with that in terms of finding a way to forgive for what happened to you. I admire that, and I encourage you to share your story, because it’s a message of renewal and hope and grace.”
“Your situation is a reminder,” Weissman said to Dewey, “a reminder that the power of the state to arrest and prosecute needs to be used with the utmost care and caution.”
The bill now heads to the House floor for a vote.