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.
As of last year, Colorado was still one of 22 states offering no compensation to the unjustly imprisoned. Rider had no permanent place to stay and little support. After having nearly two decades stolen from his life, his old skills were worthless. He’d never turned on a computer. Job training and education were never available to a man who was expected to die in prison. He qualified for $87 per month in food stamps and, thanks to his ruined back, about $700 per month in social security. Rider’s new world was unlike anything he remembered. Sometimes he’d find himself sitting in a dark room at the edge of his bed with the door closed, waiting for a guard to come around for roll call. Even though Rider was free of manacles and dead-bolted prison doors, he often forgot he was no longer caged. For 16 years, waiting had been his custom, and sometimes he’d linger for hours wondering why the guards were taking so long—before realizing they weren’t coming. Adjusting to the outside was no easier. Soon after his release Rider entered a Wal-Mart, a behemoth of such violent hues he had to run right back outside. He understood gray. White made sense. But not these screaming, electric colors. He smoked a cigarette on the sidewalk, collected himself, and walked back in. People now carried phones the size of those Zippo lighters he used to tuck away in his pockets. They no longer interacted face to face; they’d punch letters on a screen, and the letters got transported through thin fucking air to, well, somewhere, and through all this nothingness a message would come back. He wondered, Why don’t people just talk to each other? All this Facebook stuff. What’s that about? But his grandkids were all on Facebook. There was Michael, 16, who’d been going by “Little Shawn” ever since his father died in the car accident. And there was Tela, 18, who has a tattoo. Rider thought, There we go. Something in common. He had yet to hold them in his arms or see their faces without screens and hundreds of miles of separation. And so he figured out this Facebook thing and got to know his grandkids as best he could, fixing up a bike and biding his time until he could save enough money to visit them in Missouri, in person, to be there with them. “I don’t want to be that guy who sends them stuff all the time but is never there,” he told me. “It’s killing me I can’t go see them. I want them to be like, ‘Man! The dude’s cool!’ ” Nearly a year after his release, Rider found himself in Room 0112 at the Capitol. He was listening to Dan Schoen, the executive director of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, testify before a U-shaped audience of legislators that would decide his future.
They were debating a proposed bill sponsored by state Representatives Angela Williams and Dan Pabon and state Senator Lucía Guzmán: HB-1230, Compensation for the Wrongly Incarcerated. If it passed, it would determine what kind of resources and how much money per lost year Rider—and all the innocents who come after him—would receive. “Fifty thousand? Fifty-five? Seventy?” Schoen asked the legislators rhetorically. “How much to miss your kid’s birthday…sit in a cell…have people think you killed somebody? There is no price to make that up…we’re putting a price on a man’s life right now. I want everybody to think about that.” Then Schoen invoked his own daughter, who was six, and talked about what it would be like to never get to see her again. Rider couldn’t take it anymore. He left the room in silence, tears streaming down his face, and sobbed quietly in the hall until a gentle hand steered him back. The bill passed the Judiciary Committee unanimously. The House voted in favor, 60-2. The Senate approved the bill. Once Governor Hickenlooper signed it into law and after Joffe filed a formal request for compensation on Rider’s behalf—all of which still would take months to process—Rider would get education, financial counseling, and $70,000 for every year of wrongful incarceration, a total of $1.2 million doled out in 12 annual increments.