By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - A man sentenced to life in prison for raping a Colorado woman and strangling her to death with a dog leash could be freed on Monday based on advanced DNA testing that is believed to exonerate him of the crime.
Robert "Rider" Dewey, 51, who has been imprisoned since his 1996 conviction, is scheduled to appear before a Colorado judge on Monday in Grand Junction for a post-conviction hearing in his case, according to the county's court docket.
The DNA testing, which was requested by Dewey's current lawyer, exonerates him and he is expected to be released from prison, a legal source who said he had seen a memo related to the case told Reuters on condition of anonymity. Local media also reported his release was likely.
Dewey was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for the rape and murder of Jacie Taylor, 19, in the western Colorado town of Palisade. Taylor's partially clothed body was found in her bathtub in June 1994. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled with the leash.
Dewey's lawyer, Danyel Joffe, would not comment on what the DNA tests may have revealed ahead of Monday's hearing.
She said she submitted the case to the Colorado Justice Review Project, a program established in 2009 with a $1.2 million federal government grant that allows convicted felons to apply for DNA testing in their cases.
The program is administered by the office of Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, who lauded it as a way for advanced DNA techniques to affirm convictions or clear the innocent.
A spokesman for Suthers referred questions about the Dewey case to the Mesa County District Attorney's Office, which couldn't be reached for comment over the weekend.
Dewey has maintained his innocence throughout the case.
Questions arose during his trial about whether blood on his shirt belonged to the victim, according to local news accounts. A defense expert disputed the prosecution's contention that the blood matched Taylor's, the reports said.
The semen found on the victim did not match Dewey at the time of his conviction, but no other suspect was ever arrested for the crimes.
Under Colorado law, a first-degree murder conviction carries an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole.
At Dewey's sentencing, then-Mesa County District Judge Charles Buss was quoted in local media as telling the defendant that, "I am happy to impose it (a life sentence) on you."
Dewey replied: "There's still a killer out there."
The hearing on Monday is before a different judge, who is expected to rule on whether to release Dewey.
Post-conviction DNA testing has exonerated nearly 290 people in the United States since 1989, according to the Innocence Project, which works to reverse wrongful convictions.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Mary Slosson, Mary Wisniewski and Paul Simao)