The case of Tim Masters has long been viewed as one of the most disturbing murder convictions on record: a case where a man seemed convicted without direct evidence of guilt, treated abusively by police and painted as a deviate on the basis of childhood drawings. A special prosecutor has now found not only prosecutorial abuse in the case but DNA evidence that points to another man.
Tim Masters’ case has been a subject of debate in criminal law circles for years after he was convicted for sexually mutilating a woman when he was 15 years old. Peggy Hettrick was killed in 1987 and left in a field. Masters was convicted of the crime 12 years later — though no substantive evidence was found against him.
Adams County District Attorney Don Quick has now found that DNA evidence found on Hettrick’s clothing matched another man.
The case is particularly disturbing because of allegations of police abuse and prosecutorial misconduct. In his interrogation, the 15-year-old was not given an lawyer and grilled for hours by tag-team detectives. They lied to him that he had flunked a lie detecter and told him that they had clear proof of his guilt. Prosecutors later withheld key evidence that would have helped in his defense.
Last night, CNN interviewed one of the detectives who said that she was almost physically ill when Masters was convicted and believes him to be innocent.
The question in the case now goes beyond release and compensation. It goes to the continuing lack of deterrent for prosecutorial and police misconduct in such cases. When such disclosures occur, there is usually little effort to identify or hold those responsible for distorting the legal system. For a prior column on prosecutorial misconduct, click here The Nifong case is unique in that sense. What is remarkable is that there seems little middle ground between prosecutors receiving no punishment (the norm) in such cases and Nifong who recently filed for bankruptcy and now appears totally ruined. For Nifong filing, click here.
The vast majority of prosecutors and police do not cut corners or cheat. They take their role very seriously. However, such abuses still occur regularly with people who believe that the society will always protect them if they are over-zealous in their pursuit of convictions. Notably, the detective in the Masters case said that they never pursued other suspects after they learned Masters had first spotted the body and did not report it (he says that he did not think it was a real body). Now three former Ft. Collins detectives and a former CBI lab director have all come forward to say that they believe that he is innocent..