Dressed in a new blue suit, white shirt and yellow tie, Tim Masters walked out of court Tuesday a free man after new DNA results cast doubt on his first-degree murder conviction in the slaying of a Fort Collins woman.
Masters, 36, spent nearly a decade behind bars, convicted in 1999 of killing Peggy Hettrick.
After hearing from Special Prosecutor Michael Goodbee, who asked that the conviction be set aside in the "interest of justice," Judge Joseph Weatherby agreed to vacate the murder conviction, vacate the prison sentence and set a Feb. 5 court date for a reassessment of the case.
Weatherby released Masters on a $200,000 personal recognizance bond until then.
Masters, 36, showed little emotion in court but seemed a little choked up when the judge asked his family to file into the room. More than 30 family members -- mostly aunts, uncles and cousins -- packed the courtroom.
Story: Word Of The Day 'Freedom', Says Master
Goodbee promised to decide quickly whether to charge him again, but a legal analyst said that's unlikely, given the DNA evidence, which points to another suspect -- the victim's ex-boyfriend.
The courtroom erupted in applause when the short hearing ended and Masters hugged his attorneys. They then held a brief news conference to discuss Tuesday's remarkable developments. Masters stood before a bank of cameras and rows of reporters and admitted he was overwhelmed.
"I'm a little overwhelmed here. I just want to thank my family and my friends who stuck with me all these years," Masters told reporters. "Without their support I don't know if I could have made it through this."
He also thanked the news media for bringing his story to light.
When asked what he would do first, he said, "I want to go see my family."
He had no vindictive words for the prosecutors who had sent him to prison. No longer in an orange prison jumpsuit, Masters admitted he likes the look and feel of his "normal clothes."
"I love this suit and tie. My attorneys bought all of this for me out of their own pockets. That's just great," Masters said.
His attorney, David Wymore, said he'll ask the district attorney to drop the case.
"We are going to ask the prosecutor to dismiss the charges. It's an opportunity to do the right thing -- to release him for good and forever from this taint," he said. "Tim Masters is innocent."
The courtroom was packed with Masters' family, supporters, spectators and local and national media. Some of the several hundred in the courthouse for the hearing were forced to move to an overflow room, where they watched the hearing on TV monitors.
"I can't stop crying. It's so moving," said supporter Myrna Poticha. "I mean, this human being has a chance to live now. And he's such a dear and courageous young man. He's wonderful."
Masters was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1999 for killing Hettrick, a manager at a woman's clothing store. She was found stabbed and sexually mutilated in a field south of Fort Collins in 1987.
He was 15 at the time she died and lived near the field where her body was found. Fort Collins police investigated for more than a decade before arresting Masters.
Masters' attorneys said detectives wrongly focused on Masters instead of other suspects. His conviction came on circumstantial evidence -- there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime.
A special prosecutor said last week that new tests showed DNA found on Hettrick's clothing was not from Masters but from someone else.
Special prosecutor Don Quick said Tuesday that Masters did not get a fair trial.
"Mr. Masters should be tried on all the evidence available, even if we discover it late. That's what the law says. It says if you have new material evidence that wasn't available back then, you didn't get a fair trial," Quick said.
Quick didn't place blame.
Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson -- who was not the DA when Masters was convicted -- said Tuesday's developments were not an indictment of the criminal justice system.
"It just means we have new evidence and we have to take a look at it," he said.
During an appeal heard over the past few months in Larimer County District Court, the defense and special prosecutors assigned to the case said crucial information had been withheld from Masters' trial lawyers.
Masters was brought to the Larimer County Jail on Monday afternoon from a state prison in Buena Vista. While being transferred from the jail to the courthouse Tuesday morning, Masters told 7NEWS that the word of the day was "freedom."
Smiling friends and family were in a festive mood during Tuesday morning's hearing.
"It's hard to describe," said Masters' uncle, John Masters. "It's (like) saying there was a death, and all of a sudden, it turns out he is alive again."
None of Hettrick's family or friends were at the proceeding. Masters' attorney apologized to the family, saying that he was sorry if Tuesday's hearing opened up old wounds.
Across town, they had decorated an Elks Lodge with streamers and a "welcome home" sign and prepared two cakes.
"We're so thrilled," said Masters' aunt, Betty Schneider. "We just love this kid, and we're glad he's coming home."
She said prison workers at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex threw a party for Masters Friday after Quick announced his decision.
"Isn't that amazing?" she said.
Although family members did not say where Tim Masters would live, John Masters said there are no shortage of welcoming homes. Everyone wants a piece of Tim Masters now, John Masters said.
"I still can't quite believe it," said Masters' uncle John Masters. "But I also feel sad for that poor girl's family. Can you imagine what they are going through? They have to start over from scratch."
Surprisingly, Masters' family still has faith in the justice system. "We do have some flaws, but by god, we do have one of the best," said John Masters.
Meanwhile, the Weld County district attorney's office will look at alleged police misconduct in the original Masters investigation.
Prosecutors will examine possible perjury and wiretapping by the Fort Collins police after Larry Abrahamson requested their help.
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