Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said Thursday he will not oppose Clarence Moses-EL’s claim for compensation after spending 28 years in prison for a crime that he was acquitted of in 2015, opening the door for Moses-EL to receive almost $2 million from the state.
Weiser, a Democrat who took office in January, had earlier vowed not to challenge Moses-EL’s “petition for exoneration” as Cynthia Coffman, his Republican predecessor, had. But the decision ends years of speculation and a large legal question that had been looming over the case.
Weiser called the case a “travesty of justice” in a written statement.
Moses-EL is grateful to Weiser “for working to heal the harm that has been done to him by the State of Colorado,” Gail Johnson, one of Moses-EL’s attorneys, said in a written statement Thursday.
“Although no amount of money can give Mr. Moses-EL back the half of his life that was lost to the Colorado prison system, this compensation will help him and his family recover from this traumatic ordeal,” Johnson wrote. “While official recognition of his innocence is long overdue, Mr. Moses-EL appreciates that the State of Colorado is finally taking this important step forward.”
Moses-EL was convicted of rape in 1988 for an attack that occurred a year prior in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. A man broke into a woman’s apartment while she slept, beat her, dragged her and sexually assaulted her. The woman suffered six bone fractures in her face and was so badly injured that her sister did not recognize her after the attack.
The victim and Moses-EL were neighbors — and had feuded — and she initially named other men as possible suspects. A couple of days later, the victim identified Moses-EL as her attacker, saying his identity came to her in a dream. She continues to maintain that Moses-EL raped her.
In prison, fellow inmates helped Moses-EL raise money to test DNA evidence in the case. But police destroyed the evidence before it could be tested. Later, one of the men the victim originally named as a possible suspect — a convicted rapist — confessed to having sex with and striking the woman on the night of the attack. But he later recanted.
A judge ordered a new trial for Moses-EL in 2015. Prosecutors presented testimony from a neighbor of both Moses-EL and the victim who said the woman told him on the night of the attack that “Bubbles,” Moses-EL’s nickname, did it. But defense attorneys also poked holes in the case, noting that the neighbor’s testimony was uncorroborated by even the victim and that the victim’s original description of her attacker described a hairstyle that Moses-EL did not have.
After a few hours of deliberation, jurors found Moses-EL not guilty. But in order to win compensation from the state for his time spent in prison, Moses-EL would have to clear an even higher bar: proving that he was innocent, something only one other person had been able to do in Colorado during the law’s lifetime.
The exoneration compensation statute was passed in 2013, after the exoneration of Robert Dewey, who served 16 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. It allows the wrongfully convicted to receive $70,000 for every year spent in prison, but until now, Dewey was the only person to receive payments under the law.
The Colorado Sun identified five other exoneration petitions — besides Moses-EL’s and Dewey’s — filed since the law took effect. Each of those petitions was opposed by the attorney general’s office. One, involving a Washington County sex assault case, is still pending. Weiser on Thursday declined to comment on that case.
Weiser’s announcement is a dramatic U-turn from Coffman’s approach. She vigorously opposed Moses-EL’s petition for compensation, and in a statement just prior to leaving office all but said that she believes Moses-EL committed the rape.
“Much of the evidence the attorney general’s team reviewed supports the victim’s account and calls into question Moses-EL’s innocence,” Coffman said.
Weiser, citing the destroyed DNA evidence, said his decision will save his office from wasting resources trying defend a case he feels would be lost in court.
“This is a very important point about DNA evidence: It has this lasting and probative effect, which is why preserving it is important,” Weiser told reporters on Thursday. “Not only for conviction integrity, but it’s also important because cold cases — or unresolved cases — can be addressed through DNA. We have to learn from this, to my mind, tragic mistake and action. It’s costly in the state.”
Weiser said he spoke with the victim in the case before announcing his decision. “She’s remarkable, in that she’s been through a lot,” he said. “She understood that the legal situation here required me to act in this way.”
He stopped short Thursday of saying that Moses-EL was innocent. “I’ve concluded that the statutory obligation has been met and that the right decision is not to contest this petition and to award the compensation,” he said.
Moses-EL’s compensation will come from a special allocation by the legislature and will route to him in yearly payments through the Colorado Judicial Branch.
Moses-EL also has a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Denver pending in federal court. Any amount he collects from that claim will be deducted from what the state pays him under the exoneration law.
Meanwhile, Moses-EL, who is now 63, has tried to move on with his life. Johnson said gives talks about his legal ordeal and mentors at-risk youth. She said he also enjoys spending time with his family, which includes two children and 12 grandchildren.
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