By Eliott C. McLaughlin
FORT COLLINS, Colorado (CNN) — A Colorado judge Tuesday threw out Tim Masters’ 1999 murder conviction after DNA evidence pointed to another suspect, and Masters was freed after spending more than nine years behind bars.
Cheers and applause erupted as Masters walked out of court with his attorneys David Wymore and Maria Liu.
A jury convicted Masters 12 years after the discovery of the mutilated corpse of Peggy Hettrick, 37, in a field near his trailer. Masters was 15 at the time of the slaying.
Now 36, Masters wore new clothes bought by his lawyers for Tuesday’s hearing. He appeared dazed and elated.
“They did a fantastic job,” Masters said of his attorneys at a hastily convened news conference.
“I want to go see my family,” he said.
Wymore said he would “urge the prosecutors to dismiss all charges as soon as possible.” He added, “It’s an opportunity to do the right thing.”
Wymore thanked former Fort Collins investigator Linda Wheeler-Holloway, who came forward with her doubts about the conviction. He also thanked journalists “for not letting it sink into a dark hole.”
Surrounded by police officers and his attorneys, Masters left the second-floor jury room and walked to the main floor of the Larimer County Justice Center amid a flurry of flashes and shutter clicks. Police cleared a path as the smiling Masters walked outside onto icy courthouse steps and squinted as the sunlight hit him in the face. He and his attorneys got into a waiting vehicle, which quickly drove away.
A special prosecutor who reviewed how the 1999 case was handled made the request to vacate the conviction, citing new DNA evidence that points to someone else in Hettrick’s slaying.
Judge Joseph Weatherby quickly granted the request. Masters was freed on his own recognizance, which means his family does not have to put up any money or property.
Masters had been under investigation for the slaying for more than half his life.
A passing cyclist discovered the mutilated body of Hettrick near Masters’ home. Masters has said since February 12, 1987 — the day after the killing — that he did not commit the crime.
Police mounted an investigation that ultimately saw Masters jailed in 1998 and sentenced to life in prison for murder in 1999.
On Friday, after months of hearings in which Masters’ new defense team alleged police and prosecutorial misdeeds in the investigation and trial, special prosecutor Don Quick delivered what was likely the best news of Masters’ life.
A defense-commissioned DNA test — subsequently backed by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation — pointed to “a potential suspect in the early investigation of Peggy Hettrick’s murder,” Quick said in a news conference.
However, Quick did not say the evidence vindicated Masters, only that it met “the constitutional requirements” for a new trial.
After the special prosecutor announced Friday that new DNA evidence in the case warranted a retrial, District Attorney Larry Abrahamson issued a statement Monday explaining it might be unnecessary to try Masters again.
“In light of newly discovered evidence revealed to me on Friday,” Abrahamson wrote, “I will be moving as expeditiously as possible to make the determination of whether all charges against Timothy Masters will be dismissed.”
Abrahamson said he also will review all “contested convictions” in which advances in DNA testing may prove useful.
He said he wanted to review the discovery process and that he had met with the Fort Collins police chief and his officers “to discuss the critical flow of information with assurance that all information is available to our office and the defense.”
The statement is noteworthy since Masters’ attorneys allege Fort Collins police and prosecutors withheld evidence favorable to their client during his 1999 trial.
Quick filed a motion this month citing four instances in which police and prosecutors should have handed over evidence to Masters’ original defense team.
Among them was a police interview with a plastic surgeon who said it was improbable that a teen could have made the meticulous cuts necessary to remove Hettrick’s body parts. Also, according to Quick’s motion, police failed to divulge that a renowned FBI profiler warned police that Masters’ penchant for doodling gruesome horror scenes did not tie him to the crime.
Those sketches, along with a collection of narratives and knives, helped convince the jury of Masters’ guilt. No physical evidence was found tying Masters to the crime.
With charges against Masters now dismissed, the investigation likely will focus on the new DNA evidence, Quick said. Authorities have the partial DNA profiles of three men, one of them matching a full DNA profile provided by the defense.
But even with the DNA evidence, many questions remain: To whom do the other partial profiles belong? How did the physical evidence arrive on Hettrick’s clothing? How long has it been there? And ultimately, who killed her?
“I’m hoping for both Mr. Masters and the Hettrick family that we can answer those questions,”