This is a long story, but it deserves to be read in its entirety. I met Tim Masters recently and was struck by two things: how comparatively normal he seemed under the circumstances, and the extent to which his life has been completely destroyed. After spending several years in the Navy learning to be a jet mechanic, and then working in private industry on Lear jets, he now can’t get a job in his field, because he has a ten-year gap in his resume — the ten years he spent in prison, serving a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit, and indeed for which there was never a shred of real evidence tying him to the crime.
The outrages in this situation are too numerous to list, but they include the fact that Jim Broderick, the man who became so obsessed with Masters’ supposed guilt that he ignored an almost infinitely more probable suspect, perjured himself on the stand, and then ordered the destruction of mountains of evidence that might tie that suspect to the crime, remains a high-ranking member of the Ft. Collins police force; that the two prosecutors who brought this farcical case and then illegally withheld crucial evidence from the defense, Terry Gilmore and Jolene Blair, are now Colorado district court judges (they were given an essentially meaningless censure by the state supreme court last September); and that the Larimer County district attorney’s office insists on continuing to classify Masters as a suspect in the crime, although he has been exonerated by the evidence.
University of Colorado sociologist Michael Radelet, best-known for his work on the conviction of innocent defendants, points out that the distinguishing mark of cases like this — in which someone falsely convicted of a crime is eventually exonerated — is simply luck. Masters, who is quite bright, taught himself a lot of law in prison, and managed to write the sort of pro se motion that actually caught a clerk’s attention. That helped start a process that eventually led to some dedicated public defenders getting involved in the case, and forcing the state to spend a half million dollars to prove that Masters was innocent beyond a reasonable doubt (as a practical matter, this is the insane standard that has to be met to get someone convicted of murder out of prison).
How many others like Masters are sitting in prison, or on death row, today? The answer of course is that we have no idea. The conventional wisdom of the American legal system — that false convictions are extremely rare or even non-existent — (the Adams County district attorney, where Denver is located, once assured me that his office had never wrongfully convicted anyone) was shattered as soon as that axiom was subjected to any real testing, via DNA evidence and the like. How bad the situation actually is, in a nation with 2.5 million people in prison and jail on any given day, is anyone’s guess.