Presumed Guilty

The wrongful conviction of Tim Masters is one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in Colorado history.

January 2012

Pleas for Help

Inside the razor wire–wrapped, double-chain-link fencing that surrounded Buena Vista, Tim Masters kept a journal on a yellow legal pad. In it, he noted he had “heard that a body does not mentally mature while in prison.” So, each June, on his birthday, Masters wrote that he would think, “I turned 27, again,” and he would hope the lies that put him behind bars someday would be revealed. “Every day in prison is still August 10th, 1998, because on that day my world’s clock stopped,” he wrote about the day he was arrested in California. “[I hope that] I’ll finally have my ‘August 11th, 1998.’ ”

Masters’ lawyers filed appeals on his behalf. But in February 2001, the Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the jury trial conviction. Then, 20 months later, the Colorado Supreme Court reached a 4-3 decision that also upheld the conviction. In dissent, one justice, referring to the testimony from Meloy and Masters’ drawings, wrote: “The sheer volume of inadmissible evidence so overwhelmed the admissible evidence that the defendant could not have a fair trial…. There exists a substantial risk that the defendant was convicted not for what he did, but for who he was.”

It was a nice sentiment, Masters thought, but he was still in prison, where he started to pore over law books spread out on the bunk in his cell. He wrote to the Colorado Innocence Project, but the project, as Masters puts it, said his case was “not appropriate” for them to take on. His sister, Serena, sent 150 letters to law schools seeking assistance, but all they received in response was about 75 letters saying there was nothing the schools could do. Although dubious that it would result in anything positive, on May 5, 2003, Masters filed a petition for Post-Conviction Relief on a number of grounds, including ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct.

Nine days later, Greeley, Colorado, lawyer Maria Liu was appointed by the state to serve as his postconviction attorney. The daughter of immigrants, Maria Liu grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi. Her father, who was half Spanish and half Chinese, was a crop duster, and her mother was from Colombia, where Liu was born. During the summers, they moved around, going wherever her father had work dusting the cotton that spread across the deep, hot South.

Liu’s path west took her through Southern Illinois University for law school and to a job as a public defender in Colorado. She settled in Greeley. Bright-eyed, dynamic, and idealistic, the young lawyer with shoulder-length curly brown hair brought an open mind and high energy to the town. She put out a shingle around the corner from the courthouse, concentrated on postconviction remedies and representing indigent clients, and was elected president of the Weld County Bar Association. The walls of Liu’s office are decorated with a random patchwork of plaques and photographs, including one of her dog, an Irish wolfhound. She didn’t have a framed diploma until her father—who thought any self-respecting attorney should have a framed diploma on the wall—tucked one into a dime-store frame and sent it to her. It hangs next to the photograph of the wolfhound.

As she read into Masters’ conviction, paging through police reports and court transcripts, she quickly came to the conclusion that he deserved a new trial. Then, after watching the police interviews with the 15-year-old suspect, she began to believe he might actually be innocent. When she first met Masters, her belief in his innocence solidified. Liu noticed a difference between him and other clients, some of whom tried to convince her that they’d turned a new leaf in prison and found God. Tim told her the opposite. He had believed in God before he was convicted, but since being locked up, he told her he’d lost his faith.

Realizing that if this case was going to go forward she would need a partner with more trial experience, Liu called a former colleague. David Wymore had been chief deputy in the Colorado State Public Defenders office, and now he was retired and committed to spending more time with his young son. “David, this guy’s innocent,” Liu said when she called Wymore about a year after she got the case. “We’ve got to get him out.”

Wymore had his share of scars from battling with the Larimer County law enforcement community. But he never could resist a good cause. Or, even more, a good fight.

“I’m in,” he said.


On the Inside

Tim Masters’ cell in the South Unit at Buena Vista was 6 feet by 10 feet with solid doors, a steel bunk with a cardboard-thin mattress, and a consolidated steel toilet-sink combo with a steel mirror on the wall. His towels scratched and the toilet paper was rationed at one roll per week. The lack of personal space or privacy conspired to feed his frustration, and the noise was unrelenting.

If I were a free man, I’d go straight to bed right now, but I have to stand up for count at 21:15,” Masters wrote in his journal. “After count, I still won’t be able to sleep because we have a few ‘screamers’ in the unit. Screamers are inmates who yell and scream out their doors until late at night for no freaking reason. If one of those effin’ screamers were on fire, I would roast marshmallows on the flames…. Prison is the only place where you can be completely surrounded by people yet feel utterly alone.

He worked in the saddle shop, making saddle skirts and doing machine maintenance at $5.25 an hour for a boss who gave him inconsistent hours and called him “Crotch Carver” behind his back for what he’d been convicted of doing to Peggy Hettrick. He negotiated the fault lines between the prison’s ethnic and racial gangs. The Crips and Bloods were black, and the Southsiders and Northsiders were the Hispanic gangs. Masters pegged some members of the white gangs to be “solid white guys.” He avoided trouble by working out in the gym, where he bench-pressed 315 pounds, and doing his own time.

He tried to look the other way when prisoners fought over tables in the chow hall, and he got over the fact that each year the prison seemed to take one good meal—a dish he liked, such as pork fritters, pepperoni pizza, fried chicken, lasagna, hot ham and Swiss, or real Rueben sandwiches—off the menu. That all bugged him, but he got more incensed when someone would question his credibility, like the time a jailer had seen a rerun of the A&E Cold Case episode on the Hettrick case and called Masters into his office. As Masters recorded the moment in his journal:

He said, ‘I’ve been informed that your crime was just shown on TV…’ and I corrected him by saying, ‘The crime I was accused of….’

He stopped me short by snapping, ‘The crime you were charged, tried and convicted of committing.’

This man did not give a damn that I am serving life for a crime I didn’t commit. As far as he’s concerned, a jury convicted me so I am guilty.

He grew despondent when he would make friends—Mike R., Tommy M., Ted S., Caleb H., Brian M., Jeremy G., Art C.—only to see them released out of his life, dead to him forever as he remained rotting inside. The holidays were the most difficult times. Thanksgiving and Christmas would come and he would think of the new nephews, nieces, and cousins he’d never met. He refrained from calling his sister on holidays because he didn’t want to depress her with his circumstances.

He noticed that at night, his dreams—which had once been a way to escape—had become too informed by reality. He used to be able to dream of returning to the home he once had in Ridgecrest, California, but as the years wore on, even in his dreams that house was no longer a part of his life. He would dream that he was driving by, under a reddish brown desert sky, only to find someone else owned it. But the most terrifying moments came when he could sense the erosion of his own humanity.

So many years of this have made me feel dead inside. I’m not completely emotionless, but after all this time I no longer empathize well with the problems people have on the streets.

In 1999, after I had been convicted and while I was enduring processing at the Denver Reception [and] Diagnostic Center, the Columbine tragedy happened. I felt so bad for all those people. The students murdered, their families, friends, and etc. When 9/11 happened, I was sickened. That terrorists murdered thousands of American civilians and took down our twin towers made me sad and angry.

But after all these years of living with my depression over what has been done to me…after all these years of having no joy in my life…. A tragedy just happened at Virginia Tech University. A lone gunman murdered 32–33 people, and wounded around 20 others. But this time, after all I’ve been through, there is no room left for me to feel anything about that. And that pisses me off, because the real Tim Masters, the person I was before FCPD fucked me over would have felt a great deal of empathy for all the victims and their families.

I’ve tried very hard not to let all this injustice change me. On the one hand I’ve succeeded, because I will never be a criminal and I’ll never be the person Broderick claimed I was, but I’ve also become very distant and unemotional. I guess you can’t endure this kind of bullshit without it changing you in some way.

One spring, over a period of days, Masters watched a goose in the prison’s north yard. The bird moved about the yard sitting on her eggs. The eggs were not hatching and apparently the goose refused to give up, and it gradually became weaker and more desperate. Masters knew the eggs would never hatch, for the guards had spread poison in the yard that had killed whatever promise of new life was inside.