Dewey declined to make a statement shortly before he was exonerated, but he did thank Judge Brian Flynn when he was exonerated and he also thanked Rich Tuttle, the Mesa County Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted the original case in 1996.

Tuttle apologized to Dewey and wished him the best.

"I deeply regret that it took so many years to uncover your innocence," Tuttle said.

His mother, Donna Weston, sat behind her son as he was exonerated. She and her husband Jim drove 761 miles from California to be with Dewey, who requested a steak dinner for his first meal as a free man in 17 years.

"He said 'I told you I didn't do it.' We said, 'We know you didn't do it. We've always known,'" Weston said.

Judge Brian Flynn signed a motion filed jointly by the Mesa County District Attorney's Office and Dewey's attorney Danyel Joffee to vacate Dewey's 1996 conviction.

"Our system didn't work this time," Flynn said.

Flynn noted it was a "historic day" before declaring Dewey innocent, granting the motion, and dismissing the case.

Outside the courtroom, Dewey spoke to reporters and expressed no anger. He attributed his Native American faith to helping him get through the ordeal of wrongful imprisonment.

"I got locked up when I was 33 and I'm 51 now," Dewey said. "There's a lot for me to catch up on."

Dewey's re-entering a much different society than the one he left in 1995 when he went to prison. Gas was 87 cents a gallon, there was no Facebook, and cell phones were not common.

"He has a challenging adjustment ahead. He's never used a cell phone. He lives in a world without computers and cell phones," Joffe said.

All the things we've grown to rely on, Dewey has never known.

"I don't understand what texting is," Dewey said. "Why wouldn't they just talk?"

A social worker will assist Dewey for the next year as he reintegrates into society and learns the ropes of life in 2012.

"Contrary to popular belief, the world doesn't stop when you go to prison," Dewey said.

Dewey is now a part of that world for the first time in 17 years as he begins his new life as a free man.

Dewey plans to leave Colorado and live with his girlfriend, Angela, who was also present for the hearing.

"I just kind of want to kick back, ride my bike, and be with my family," Dewey said.

Joffe, a Denver-based attorney, has represented Dewey for 11 years and says she has always believed in his innocence.

"He was unjustly imprisoned for a hideous crime he did not commit. I believe he has the courage and the stamina to put these dark days behind him and get on with his life. He was always optimistic that he was going to be released," Joffe said.

New DNA testing has identified a new suspect in the homicide.

An arrest warrant was issued for Douglas Thames, who is accused of first degree murder and first degree sexual assault.

Thames is already serving a life sentence for a 1989 murder in Fort Collins.

"Today is about Mr. Dewey. Exonerating him and releasing him. We are also embarking on a new prosecution for Douglas Thames for this murder. There was not a link between Mr. Dewey and the new suspect," said Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger.

Dewey was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 1994 rape and murder of Jacie Taylor.

The 19-year-old was sexually assaulted and strangled with a dog leash.

Taylor's body was found in a bathtub her apartment building in Palisade.

"This reopens an incredibly sad and tragic part of the victims' families lives and we give them our heartfelt condolences," Julie Selsberg with the Colorado Attorney General's Office said.

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey was on the panel that approved new DNA testing in Dewey's case.

"You want to exonerate an innocent person. You don't want them serving time," Morrissey said.

In 2010, Dewey's case was reviewed by the DNA Justice Review Project, which is led by the Colorado Attorney General's office and the Denver District Attorney, through a grant of more than $1.2 million. The grant is paying for the review of 5,100 cases of forcible rape, murder and manslaughter where DNA was involved.

Dewey is the project's only exoneration so far.

Morrissey says today's DNA technology was not available in Mesa County when Dewey was convicted in 1996.

"So DNA obviously is much better than that old technology," Morrissey said.

During the initial murder trial, forensics experts testified that a blood stain on Dewey's shirt had a mixture of his blood and Taylor's DNA.

The defense in his case argued that mixture could come from several different sources and tried to convince the jury that investigators did a poor job and other viable suspects had been overlooked.

A Mesa County jury disagreed and found him guilty of first-degree murder and sexual assault. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

9NEWS legal analyst Scott Robinson says Dewey could have grounds for a lawsuit to award financial damages for time served.

"There's no [financial] limit if he files a federal civil rights claim, but he needs more than just wrongful conviction to have a solid case," Robinson said.

Robinson says Dewey would have to prove police and prosecutorial misconduct - much like the Tim Masters case.

Masters received a $10 million settlement for his wrongful conviction.

"[A lawsuit] is something we're going to look at down the road. We're not going to be looking at that today. He definitely deserves to be compensated for all the time he's spent in prison. What the numbers are? I can't put a number to that," Joffe said.

Hautzinger says there was no misconduct during Dewey's investigation and trial.

"I certainly am very regretful of the fact that Mr. Dewey spent so much time in prison. The trial back in '96 was one where this office prosecuted the best available suspect with the best available evidence...it resulted in a very imperfect result obviously. Thank God we are able to be here today releasing an innocent man," Hautzinger said.