The exoneration of Tim Masters
September 14, 2012
I first learned about the book Drawn to Injustice: The Wrongful Conviction of Tim Masters while writing about Tim’s case in the beginning of the week. I knew as soon as I saw a book had been written about the case that I had to read it. I bought the Kindle edition on Amazon.com and finished it in a couple of days (which is fast for me since I have two young kids and a job).
I want to talk about the book because it is well written, disturbing, and the best detailing of a wrongful conviction I have ever read. A close second is Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt – a book that examines the conviction of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley for the murders of three eight year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.
Tim’s book is powerful for many reasons. The book is written in the first person. Tim begins his story by describing the beginning of his day on February 11th of 1987. He was in the tenth grade and lived in a trailer with his father in Fort Collins, Colorado. The day began like any other, but soon marked the beginning of a nightmare that would ultimately result in Tim’s wrongful conviction, his incarceration at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility (known to many as “Bueny”), and his exoneration by the attorney general’s office in 2011.
Though Tim was 15 when the body of 37 year-old Peggy Hettrick was found in a field near his home, he was not arrested and charged for the murder until 1998. By the time of his arrest for the murder, Tim had served in the Navy and had earned an honorable discharge in 1997. His father had died just two years earlier from a massive heart attack.
The pursuit of a conviction against Tim is one of the more unnerving aspects of the book. One detective in particular, Jim Broderick, stood out in his quest to arrest Tim for the murder. Broderick consistently ignored all evidence and leads pointing directly away from Tim as a suspect. He appeared to go to great lengths to suppress critical evidence in the case. For example, Broderick never informed Tim’s defense about other potential suspects in the murder (and by suspects I mean people who were far more suspicious than a 15 year old boy walking through a field near his house to catch a school bus). The prosecution hid this information as well.
Lessons Learned: The Media
Throughout the book Tim touched on various ways the media had an impact on his case. His original attorneys advised him to not to speak to the media and tell his side of the story, even though the police spoke to the press regularly. The defense’s reluctance to speak to the media, or allow Tim to do it, resulted in a very one-sided presentation of the case to the public. Tim examined the influence this had on potential jurors, writing in his book: “One woman told the court she couldn’t be impartial. She told the court, ‘I thought he was guilty based upon the paper.'”
So much for not believing everything one reads, right? However, during my own advocacy I have observed the same approach to avoiding media coverage by countless other defense attorneys. I believe that providing the public with a full picture is essential because in America criminal cases are tried in the media long before they ever play out in a courtroom. There is no innocent until proven guilty in the court of public opinion.
The book discusses the perverted and criminal acts of Dr. Hammond who lived so close to the field where Peggy was found that his bedroom had a clear view of it. Dr. Hammond had set up a video recording device in a guest bathroom vent that recorded images of visitors using the facilities. He videotaped children as young as thirteen. When his activities were exposed the police and prosecution took action that seemed more protective than judicious. It is worth reading the book to see precisely what was done to protect this man from prosecution, and then his eventual response to the pressure (though minimal).
The same was true regarding Matthew Zoellner, Peggy’s “on again off again” boyfriend. Zoellner claimed to have an alibi the evening of the murder; however, when questioned about seeing Peggy at the Prime Minister the evening before she was discovered in the field he got the name of his own alibi witness incorrect. The alibi in question was a woman named Dawn Gilbreath, whom Zoellner referred to during questioning as “Shawn”. Dawn claimed to have left Zoellner’s residence around 3 a.m., meaning she was not with him for the entire night. The jury was not informed of this, among other things.
This is important because when touch DNA testing was later conducted on Peggy’s clothing, Zoellner’s DNA was found on the inner part of her panties, as well as on the cuffs of her shirt. The DNA was found in locations the examiners suspected the perpetrator of the crime would have touched.
Another remarkable piece of information I obtained from the book pertained to the prosecution’s file. While Tim’s attorneys worked to appeal his conviction, they sought the original prosecution file regarding his case. It turned out that the complete file had never been turned over to the defense as required by law. Thousands of pages of documents were withheld. Had Tim’s original defense had access to these files, as they should have, it is hard to imagine he would have ever been convicted.
However, having seen firsthand the injustices that have taken place throughout this country I am uncomfortable making that statement with any degree of certainty. I do feel sure of three things though. First, I know Tim Masters did not murder Peggy Hettrick. Two, I know he was relentlessly railroaded by an overzealous detective and the prosecution went along with it. Three, if the jury had access to the DNA results that eventually prompted his conviction to be vacated, he wouldn’t have been convicted in the first place.
Steve Lehto: Attorney and Coauthor
Steve Lehto is an attorney who helped to prepare and write the book about Tim’s wrongful conviction. He describes himself as “naturally skeptical” and said that early on, upon learning Tim had been exonerated by DNA evidence, he “still assumed that the case against him had been substantial enough to support a conviction.” He recognized that Tim was innocent, but like so many other people in this country he believed that when a jury convicted someone it was because there was evidence supporting the decision.
As he began to review the transcripts, case documents, and other materials pertaining to Tim’s case he was alarmed at what he discovered. “I was shocked at how non-existent the case really was. I had access to the case files, transcripts, everything the police had. It was a huge pile of nothing incriminating.” He added, “I never doubted he was innocent. I came to doubt whether the prosecutors ever really thought he was guilty. I believe they knew they were prosecuting an innocent man.”
Steve is primarily a litigator. However, Tim’s case has caused him to adopt a cynical view of the criminal justice system. He is particularly disturbed by “the police and how far they will go to make someone look guilty – rather than simply following the evidence where it leads.”
I asked Steve how he approached the project of helping Tim to prepare a book about his experiences. He explained that “Tim kept journals while he was in prison and after he was released. I reviewed those along with the case files (which Tim knew extensively) and then he and I spent a lot of time going over it. Tim knows those files better than the prosecutors ever did.”
He discussed the strategy behind the process of putting together the monumental amount of information in Tim’s case. “We had to come up with a way to make a huge mass of documentation and evidence accessible to the average person. The funny thing is that Tim wound up being the voice of reason. I really wanted to lay into the prosecutors and the police and Tim was the one who wanted to dial it down. The book is told from his perspective so it was appropriate to write it exactly how he wanted it told.”
I asked if Steve believed Peggy’s killer or killers would ever be brought to justice. He responded that “it is hard to say. The prosecutors and the police screwed up Tim’s trial so badly that anyone charged with the murder now could actually point to mistakes made at Tim’s trial to help their case (for example: There were other potential suspects who were never even looked at by the police. Now her killer could point to them as well and say, ‘What about them?’).”
Steve cautions that Tim’s story is not as unique as it might sound. “Tim’s story is remarkable for several reasons, one of which is that it is too common. We hear stories all the time about defendants who are convicted and then released later because of DNA or other evidence. We need to be mindful that our system has its flaws. One way to balance that is to allow for DNA testing and other methods to confirm or refute convictions.”
Regarding wrongful prosecutions and the barriers presented to those who encounter barriers to proving their innocence, such as the reluctance on the part of prosecutors to later test DNA evidence using advanced technology, Steve said, “I’ve never understood prosecutors who fight to block DNA testing. If the conviction is appropriate, the DNA will underscore that. Right?”.
I couldn’t agree more. In fact, this is precisely the problem people like Darlie Routier have faced – all while sitting on Texas’s infamous death row. It is the obstacle that prevents Kirstin Blaise Lobato of Nevada from proving her innocence in court as well.
Why People Must Read the Book
The book reads like a well crafted fictional novel. The only problem is that the book is true. It is an unsettling account of a man’s conviction when there was no physical evidence suggesting he committed the crime, no eyewitness claiming he did it, no confession, and no logical motive. If the idea of this happening scares you, good. It should. This is not the kind of system that should exist in a civilized society that values human rights.
People need to read this book to develop an understanding of how and why wrongful convictions occur. Tim’s honest account of his experiences being interrogated and incarcerated are troubling and yet refreshing on account of his candid descriptions.
This book is proof that a wrongful conviction can happen to anyone, even if there is no real evidence existing to support it. It should be required reading for criminal justice and law majors, as well as any person who still believes the myth that people are only convicted by a jury when strong evidence exists to support that decision.
That myth is being systematically debunked by courageous people like Tim Masters who are not afraid to speak up about the serious flaws in the system that are preventing true justice for countless numbers of people.
In this book Tim’s voice is loud and it is clear. I urge you to read his story and share it with others.