By Ellen Miller
GRAND JUNCTION, Co. (Reuters) - Colorado prosecutors sought on Monday to free a man they said DNA evidence proved was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison for the 1994 rape and slaying of a woman found strangled with a dog leash.
Robert "Rider" Dewey, 51, imprisoned since his 1996 conviction, was scheduled to appear before a state court judge later on Monday in Grand Junction, about 250 miles west of Denver, for a hearing where he is expected to be ordered released.
At the same time, prosecutors said they would seek an arrest warrant for a new suspect in the killing who was identified by DNA testing and is already serving a life prison term for a similar 1989 murder.
A joint court motion entered by prosecutors and Dewey's current lawyer asks the judge to overturn his 1996 first-degree murder conviction and immediately set him free on the basis of new DNA testing they said proves his innocence.
Dewey was sentenced to life without parole for the rape and murder of 19-year-old Jacie Taylor 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.
Appearing with prosecutors at a joint news conference to announce their motion, Dewey's lawyer, Danyel Joffe, called the outcome of his trial a miscarriage of justice. Dewey has maintained his innocence throughout the case.
The latest DNA testing ruled out Dewey as the source of blood found on a shirt that also bore blood stains from Taylor. The original DNA analysis had already excluded him as the source of semen recovered from the crime scene and of scrapings taken from under the victim's fingernails.
SUSPECT ALREADY IN PRISON FOR MURDER
New analysis showed those additional samples matched the DNA of Douglas Thames, who is serving a life sentence without parole for the 1989 rape and strangulation of Susan Doll, 39, of Fort Collins, according to court papers filed in the Dewey case.
Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said he felt "deep regret" for Dewey's conviction and told reporters his office was seeking an arrest warrant against Thames in connection with the Taylor slaying. He explained that Thames was not arrested in the Doll case until after Dewey's 1995 arrest in the Taylor murder, and Thames' DNA information was not contained in a statewide database for inmates back then.
Joffe said she submitted the Dewey 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.
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 saying, "I am happy to impose it (a life sentence) on you."
Dewey replied: "There's still a killer out there."
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.
(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara)