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.
April 2005 Rider had spent a decade in prison. He had started to wonder about trivial things. How long has it been since I petted a dog? What would it be like to actually touch a tree? What does the wilderness smell like? After a prison work accident he had a back surgery that did not go well. The rods and screws they implanted later impinged on the nerves in his spine. He also had a supposedly minor shoulder surgery that resulted in a month of complications and a nearly gangrenous limb. After finally being transported to Denver for proper medical care, he says the doctor told him, “You’re lucky. Real lucky. You could’ve lost your arm.” Occasionally, and only occasionally, Rider’s mother and her husband, Jim, would drive almost 1,100 miles from their Ridgecrest, California, home to the prison in Limon for a visit. They were allowed one hug. They were not allowed to hold hands. And the instant they’d stand to leave, Rider would start missing them all over again. He always worried before they arrived that something would ruin the reunion, because it didn’t always work out. Sometimes they’d set an appointment, but between leaving California and arriving in Colorado, the prison would go into lockdown, and they wouldn’t be allowed in. Eleven hundred miles, for nothing. It might be two more years before they could return. In March 2006, Rider requested post-conviction DNA testing. That same month, Shawn called with good news. He’d begun making arrangements to see his dad, hopefully in the next few months; their first visit since Rider went away. The district court denied Rider’s request for DNA testing on May 5, 2006. Two days later, Shawn, about a month away from his 27th birthday, was driving in Kansas City. He turned to address a friend in the back seat, swerved off the road, collided with either a metal structure or another car, and rolled his vehicle across a grass field. He died instantly. Limon Correctional was on a modified lockdown when the news trickled down to Rider three days later. He was told not by a loved one, but by a prison chaplain. Rider wasn’t permitted to attend his son’s funeral. He mourned the only way he knew: First, alone in his cell, and later with his sweat lodge brothers, swaying to the native songs with steam and tears rolling over him. He tapped into his Harley daydreams for escape. The following week, he sat at his desk intending to write his former wife but could find no words.
He just stared at the paper. What do you say? The court rejections continued. It took Joffe years—and several legal setbacks—to finally catch a break. Through an acquaintance, she reached the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, which is dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted prisoners and has helped free more than 300 such inmates since its founding in 1992. Joffe submitted an application. It would take a year for the group to respond, but it finally accepted Rider’s application and agreed to pay for new DNA testing on the Texaco shirt, this time using modern protocols. It was a huge victory. Then, something even bigger: In 2010, armed with a $1.4 million federal grant, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, and others formed the Colorado Justice Review Project (CJRP), a prosecution-based exoneration program. Its goal: Review the cases of incarcerated inmates serving time for violent crimes, find examples of potential wrongful conviction, and begin the exhaustive process of getting the inmates released through DNA testing. Groups like the Innocence Project often have to litigate for every shred of information; the CJRP has the cooperation of every district attorney in Colorado. Julie Selsberg, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, runs the CJRP. She and her colleagues had about 5,000 cases to screen, some dating as far back as the 1960s. After a year, they’d whittled the list down to 1,400. Rider’s case file was buried in the “Mesa County” folder.
In January 2011, Selsberg received a call from Danyel Joffe. The DNA results from the Texaco shirt were finally back, and Jacie Taylor’s blood wasn’t on it. In fact, the lab ruled out any female DNA. The lone piece of physical evidence tying Rider to the crime had finally been refuted. Selsberg pulled Rider’s case out of order. In late March 2011, Selsberg and her investigator drove to Limon. They entered the large, gray visiting room and watched Rider walk slowly to greet them. The first thing Selsberg noticed was how oddly calm he seemed. She was used to inmates who vehemently proclaimed their innocence, whether it was true or not. She expected Rider to be pounding on the table, yelling,
“You don’t understand! Get me out of here!” Instead, he was so serene it was distracting. After 16 years in prison, Rider had only known letdowns. You can’t be anxious in a shoebox for that long; it’s no way to live. His composure stuck with Selsberg. She left knowing only that they had to keep investigating. As she continued searching for the truth, she found herself repeatedly asking a question many before her had pondered: What links him to this crime? The Texaco shirt mystery had been solved, but other questions remained: the dog leash, the skin beneath Taylor’s fingernails, the semen on the blanket, and the soap found inside her. Even though none of this had matched Rider, it had never matched anyone else, either. Selsberg wanted it all tested, and the person to do that was Yvonne “Missy” Woods—as Selsberg puts it, a “talented, no-nonsense” forensic scientist at the CBI. Woods received one batch of evidence in spring 2011 and a second that fall. Selsberg was on her winter break when, on December 19, Woods called: “You are not going to believe what I am going to tell you,” she said. She’d been able to retrieve DNA profiles from every piece of evidence, first confirming what was already known: Neither the semen nor the matter under Taylor’s nails was Rider’s. But also, DNA found on the dog leash, which had never been tested before, wasn’t his. They all matched each other. And most importantly, they matched someone in the CODIS database.