.FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) – Smiling and soft-spoken, Timothy Masters walked out of court a free man for the first time in nearly a decade Tuesday, his murder conviction wiped out by DNA evidence that points to another suspect.
Masters, 36, was ordered freed on a personal recognizance bond by Larimer County District Judge Joseph Weatherby. Prosecutors promised to decide quickly whether to try him again.
Masters had been sentenced to life in prison in 1999 in the killing of a 37-year-old woman whose body was found near his home, but new tests announced last week showed that someone else’s DNA was found on her clothing.
Applause broke out in the courtroom as the hearing ended. Masters showed little emotion, but he hugged members of his defense team and later thanked his family and friends.
“Without their support, I don’t know if I could have made it through this,” he said.
“I love this suit and tie,” he added, looking down at the jacket and khaki pants he wore instead of orange prison clothes. “My attorneys bought all this for me out of their own pockets.”
Asked what he would do next, he said, “I want to go see my family.”
In 1987, the body of Peggy Hettrick, a manager at a woman’s clothing store, was found stabbed and sexually mutilated in a field south of Fort Collins. Police investigated for more than a decade before arresting Masters, who was 15 at the time of the slaying and lived near the field where her body was found.
Masters’ new attorneys have said detectives wrongly focused on Masters instead of other suspects.
During recent appeals, both the defense and the special prosecutor assigned to the case, Don Quick, said crucial information was withheld from Masters’ trial lawyers.
Quick said there was no evidence that the prosecutors, who are now judges, knowingly withheld evidence from the defense team, though he said it appeared investigators withheld information from prosecutors. District Attorney Larry Abrahamson declined to discuss any possible charges or discipline against the original prosecution team.
Masters remains formally charged with murder. His attorney David Wymore said he will ask Abrahamson to drop the case.
Abrahamson – who was not the DA when Masters was convicted – has ordered a review of contested convictions in which DNA testing might determine innocence.
Masters’ case “is not, in any way, an indictment of the criminal justice system,” Abrahamson said. “It just means we have new evidence and we have to take a look at it.”
Abrahamson declined to comment on whether he would pursue charges against the
person whose DNA was found on Hettrick’s clothes. Authorities haven’t identified that person but said it was someone identified early in the investigation as a potential suspect.
Dozens of Masters’ relatives crammed into the courtroom for Tuesday’s hearing and decorated an event hall with balloons, streamers and a “welcome home” sign.