This week’s exoneration in Colorado: Note how it resembles—and differs from—the case of the WM3

Masters at 15

After 25 years, a Colorado grand jury decided on Tuesday that Timothy Masters is no longer a suspect in the 1987 murder of Peggy Hettrick.

Masters was 15 years old when police in Fort Collins, Colorado brought him in for questioning about the murder of Hettrick, whose sexually mutilated body was found in a field near his house. Masters, a sophomore in high school, was taken from his classroom for questioning after his father told police he had seen the boy walking near the field.

Police found no trace of Hettrick’s blood or hair on anything connected to Masters. But they quickly identified him as their prime suspect after finding knives, drawings of knives and gruesome doodles in Masters’ room.  The teenager, however, consistently maintained that he was innocent, even under intense police questioning, as shown in the video here.

On the other hand, there was evidence that pointed away from Masters. Two hairs found on her body were not his, nor were fingerprints found on her purse.

[private]Masters lived under a cloud of suspicion for more than a decade, part of which he spent working as an aircraft mechanic in the Navy. But police were still working the case. They contacted Dr. J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist from California and asked him to analyze Masters’ writings and artwork. Meloy never interviewed Masters, yet he told police that some of the drawings represented Masters reliving the crime.

With that information, police charged Masters with Hettrick’s murder. Meloy was the main witness against him at his trial in 1999. The prosecutors’ case was circumstantial, based largely on inferences about Masters’ state of mind.

Jurors convicted Masters and sentenced him to life in prison. Some later said that they were convinced by Meloy’s testimony, coupled with Masters’ drawings and writings.

Masters appealed, but in 2001 the Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed his conviction. The next year, the Colorado Supreme Court denied him a new hearing.

In 2004, Masters was appointed a new team of state-appointed attorneys. Their investigation revealed that critical evidence, including the hairs found on Hettrick and photographs of the fingerprints from her purse had been “lost.” They presented this evidence in court in 2007. (Colorado had no law requiring that evidence be preserved and authorities who destroy evidence after criminal trials were shielded from liability.)

Doubts about Masters’ guilt grew—among members of the public, journalists and even some police officers. Former Fort Collins police investigator Linda Wheeler-Holloway, who was among the first to suspect Masters, told his defense attorneys that, after years of studying the case, she had concluded she had been wrong.

But Lt. Jim Broderick, the investigator credited with cracking the case, said he stood by his investigation. And the city’s chief of police supported Broderick.

Meanwhile, Masters’ attorneys sought new scientific tests of DNA evidence found on Hettrick’s clothing. Tests by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation produced partial profiles that did not match Masters. Further testing at a laboratory in the Netherlands provided a statistical match with another man who had once been considered a suspect.

In light of the new evidence, defense attorney sought a new trial. They argued that no physical evidence linked Masters to Hettrick’s murder and that prosecutors at Masters’ trial had withheld at least four items of evidence favorable to him.

(In separate actions, a Colorado criminal defense attorney filed a civil suit in federal district court against the prosecutors at Masters’ trial, as well as detective Broderick, claiming that they had violated Masters’ civil rights. A Larimer County grand jury indicted Broderick on eight counts of perjury for false statements he made relating to Masters’ arrest and conviction. Those charges were dismissed, however, when a judge ruled that Colorado’s three-year statute of limitations for perjury had expired.

(In addition, the Colorado Supreme Court considered allegations that the two prosecutors at Masters’ trial—Terry Gilmore and Jolene Blair—had failed to provide his attorneys with important police information that supported his claim of innocence. The supreme court censured the two, who by then had become judges, and in elections last November, they were voted out of office.)

Meanwhile, a retired judge, Joseph Weatherby, was appointed to hear all the new evidence in Masters’ case. The Colorado District Attorneys Council appointed Don Quick, a prosecutor from another Colorado County, to represent the state.

At a hearing in 2008, Masters’ attorneys presented evidence that detectives and prosecutors had targeted the teenager and had destroyed or withheld evidence that would have cleared him. Those claims were supported by the attorneys who represented Masters in 1999, as well as by former police officers, investigators and forensic experts, some of whom said police ignored other viable suspects.  

On January 18, 2008, Weatherby vacated Masters’ conviction. He ordered that Masters, who was by then 36, be immediately released from prison.

Quick, the prosecutor, announced that Masters, while not exonerated, should be freed while awaiting the new trial. “We’re going to go upstairs and see if there’s anything that can be done this weekend” to get Masters out of prison, Quick said. “If not, it’ll be done Tuesday morning.” Masters was freed on his own recognizance; no bond was required.

Although it did not show conclusively that Masters was not the killer, Masters became the first Colorado convict to be freed on DNA evidence. What the DNA testing did reveal was a further lack of evidence linking him to the crime, as well as evidence that pointed to another suspect.

Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson responded by promising to review all “contested convictions” in which advances in DNA testing may prove useful. Due to the allegations of official misconduct, he also said he would review the discovery process to assure “that all information is available to our office and the defense.”

In the end, state officials could not refute Masters’ claims of police and prosecutorial misconduct. In 2010, he received a settlement from the city of Fort Collins and Larimer County for $10 million. Video on that settlement.

This week, a grand jury finally cleared Masters of even suspicion in the case. Colorado Attorney General John Suthers issued a statement that read: “Given the nature and extent of the Grand Jury investigation, the time has come for law enforcement to officially exonerate Timothy Masters.”

Masters in 2010

The mayor of Fort Collins apologized to Masters, and so did Larimer District Attorney Abrahamson. In a press release Abrahamson said:

“Rule 3.6 and 3.8 of The Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct precludes prosecutors from publicly commenting on the guilt or innocence of any individual who may be subject to an ongoing investigation. However, in light of the current [grand jury] statement, I believe it is appropriate as the current District Attorney and on behalf of the criminal justice system in Larimer County to express our apologies to Timothy Masters, his family and friends for the conviction and sentence he endured 12 years ago.”

Hettrick’s murder remains unsolved.[/private]

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply