Robert “Rider” Dewey spent 17 long years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. During that time, he endured constant legal setbacks and personal tragedies. This is how he made it to the other side.

September 2013

If Rider’s life in prison were song lyrics, the chorus would echo “appeal denied.” His defense team’s motion for a new trial was rejected. His appeal attorney, Karen Ashby of Denver, who has since become a judge, combed through the case. Stunned he’d been convicted, she filed an argument citing insufficient evidence. That was denied in February 1999. Rider then went to Colorado’s Supreme Court, which upheld the previous rejection. By 2001 Rider was appointed another lawyer from Denver, Douglas Joffe. They met in the visitor’s room of the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility. Rider was fed up. “Look, if you’re just going to song-and-dance me to get a paycheck and blow me off, this is it, our last meeting. No disrespect, but I’ll find someone who will listen and believe me,” he said.

He took Joffe’s silence as a shrug-off. What Rider didn’t know then was that although Joffe might have been dubious—because he did post-conviction and appeals cases, his clients routinely proclaimed their innocence—he would doggedly pursue Rider’s freedom for the next 11 years for a fraction of his usual pay, eventually becoming Rider’s sole crusader. Their interactions started with letters discussing legal issues. Eventually, the attorney/client relationship developed into friendship. Rider told Joffe about his son, Shawn, and about the ways he tried to preserve his sanity through the relentless boredom, guards who made a sport of tormenting inmates, and the nighttime sobs of men who had dwindled into puddles of their former selves. Joffe visited Rider in prison more than anyone. Joffe knew exactly what it was like to exist in a world where no one understood. He had never absorbed the ferocity of other inmates’ fists, but Joffe had experienced and internalized the brutality of a society that largely believed him to be sick. From an early age, Joffe secretly identified as female. By his early 20s he became so terrified of public ridicule he buried his true identity—so deep that for the next 20 years, he forgot about it. Like Rider, Joffe suffered the loss of a partner. When Joffe was in his early 40s, his wife split after his gender memories came flooding back in a tidal wave of confusion and despair. Just as friends were dropping out of Rider’s life, Joffe suffered the abandonment of nearly everyone he cared for—once he decided it was finally time to become she. Rider and Joffe (who now goes by the first name Danyel) simply got each other. They deeply understood each other’s grief, and they fortified each other’s resolve. During Joffe’s transition, Rider signed off his letters with, “You stay strong pretty lady. I’m very proud of you.”

Maybe it’s that bond of misunderstanding and persecution that kept Joffe working for Rider’s release despite constant setbacks. Why she began to place her faith not solely in the justice system, but also in the possibility of miracles. And then, finally, one happened. In 2003, the FBI announced a revamped DNA database called CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). It contains genetic records for all inmates who have been tested. Joffe immediately filed a motion to preserve the physical evidence in Rider’s case. If the real killer had been incarcerated for another crime, his DNA should be in CODIS. If they could retest the evidence and then upload the DNA to CODIS, they might get a hit. The district court granted Joffe’s motion in spring 2003, the first positive news Rider had received since his imprisonment. But there was a problem. DNA testing is expensive, and neither Rider nor Joffe had the money. With no other choice, Joffe launched the weary slog of searching for grants and petitioning organizations to cover the cost. It would take seven years.