Masters sees conviction vacated, awaits retrial hearing
Boosted by DNA analysis, Fort Collins man allowed to replace handcuffs with suit cuffs
By Miles Moffeit
The Denver Post
Article Last Updated: 01/23/2008
Tim Masters, a free man, waves to supporters outside courthouse in Ft. Collins, CO.FORT COLLINS — Tim Masters walked free Tuesday after serving almost a decade behind bars for a murder conviction his lawyers long argued had been based on little more than scary teenage scribblings.
Wearing neatly pressed JoS. A. Bank dress clothes and yellow tie purchased by his attorneys, the Fort Collins native stepped out a back door of the Larimer County Justice Center, waved to supporters and was sped by car to a reunion of more than 40 family members waiting for him at a private party four blocks away.
"It's so great, I can't begin to explain it — to see all my family and friends," Masters, with moist eyes, told The Denver Post, describing his feelings of freedom. "It's not having someone standing behind you telling you you have only one minute to say your goodbyes."
Minutes earlier, at the request of special prosecutor and Adams County District Attorney Don Quick, visiting Judge Joe Weatherby set aside Masters' conviction for Peggy Hettrick's 1987 murder, citing new DNA evidence that Quick said excludes Masters from the crime. The order brought Masters freedom — and one step closer to being Colorado's first convict exonerated by DNA.
"I'm a little overwhelmed," Masters said at a post-ruling news conference in the courthouse.
Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson, who agreed Tuesday that Masters is at least entitled to a new trial, must decide whether to move forward with such a trial on the murder charge still officially lodged against him.
"He's walking tall"
That pending decision didn't stop Masters from rejoicing after Weatherby accepted his not-guilty plea and granted his attorneys' request to release him on a personal-recognizance bond. The moment he entered the Elks Lodge, where relatives from five states had gathered, he met a group hug. His big sister, Serena Castro, who he didn't know would be there, was among the first to reach him.
"He's walking tall, upright now," Castro said, rubbing her eyes, ". . . not slouched like at the prison."
With a looser swing to his shoulders, the 35-year-old man moved around a long buffet table festooned with a "Welcome Back" banner. He smiled and sampled fresh fried chicken, vegetables and chips.
Instead, the analysis found cells belonging to three other men, including one who had been considered and quickly dismissed as a suspect shortly after the murder.
After Tuesday's ruling, Wymore arranged a quick courthouse news conference to implore Abrahamson to drop the charges.
"The reason we're here right now is because Tim Masters is innocent," Wymore said. "He remains and was a victim of an unfair and unjust conviction."
Referring to the not-guilty plea that Masters submitted to the court, Wymore said, "I'm still in a pretrial mode. I'm going to ask first the prosecution to dismiss all charges against Tim Masters as quickly as possible. It's an opportunity to do the right thing, to release him for good and forever from this taint."
Abrahamson told The Post that he had set a meeting Tuesday afternoon to review the matter, but a spokeswoman later said, "No decision will be coming today."
Wymore also alluded to the pain that Masters' and Hettrick's families have endured waiting for a resolution to the case.
"We're sorry to reopen any wounds with the family of Peggy Hettrick," Wymore said.
As for Masters' clan: "They've endured anguish, humiliation and frustration over many years, but they have been the drive behind our ability to keep moving forward."
Masters then stepped to the lectern, acknowledging he was nervous. ". . . Bear with me. I want to thank my family and friends who've stayed with me all these years. I want to thank the media, . . . and that's about all I have to say."
Then, he said, "I love this suit and tie," eliciting laughter from the audience. "I want to go see my family."
All walks of life
What could be Masters' last day in court meant different things to the more than 100 people from all walks of life in the room — lawmakers, lawyers, scientists, relatives, professors. The need for stronger evidence laws, given Masters' fight to preserve evidence and obtain DNA testing. The need for closure — if the charges are dropped, for example, the case again turns cold.
"With Tim's apparent innocence, how can we as a state confidently say this is an isolated case," said state Rep. Cheri Jahn, who wants Masters to testify at upcoming hearings to pass laws to make it a duty for authorities to preserve evidence. "We need to do more to make sure the system is just."
No one from Hettrick's family was in evidence at the courthouse Tuesday.
Her uncle, who had attended some of the hearings, was not available for comment.
Outside the courtroom, after Masters was ordered free, his aunt Rose Lamb and other family members released a bundle of balloons into the sky: nine green ones, representing every year Masters has worn a green prison suit, and 20 white ones, representing every year Hettrick's death has gone unsolved.
"They were supposed to symbolize doves," Lamb said. "Peggy Hettrick — she can't be forgotten."
Twenty miles away, at the Loveland Cemetery, her gravesite was covered with crusted snow. No footprints. No flowers.