Tapp is free

Chris Tapp hugs his mom, Vera Tapp, and Carol Dodge, the mother of murder victim Angie Dodge, after being freed during Wednesday’s resentencing hearing at the Bonneville Courthouse. Tapp is free after serving 20 years in prison for the 1996 murder of 18-year-old Angie Dodge. Taylor Carpenter / tcarpenter@postregister.com

Chris Tapp smiles after his resentencing hearing Wednesday at the Bonneville Courthouse. Tapp was convicted of the 1996 murder of Angie Dodge because he confessed. But in recent years reports from experts have concluded that Tapp’s confession was false, that the details were fed to him by police and that he was coerced with threats of the gas chamber if he didn’t cooperate. Taylor Carpenter / tcarpenter@postregister.com

Chris Tapp after his resentencing hearing Wednesday at the Bonneville Courthouse. There are many samples of DNA that were left at the crime scene by a single man, but that man is not Tapp. Taylor Carpenter / tcarpenter@postregister.com

Tapp and Public Defender John Thomas smile during Tapp’s post conviction relief hearing Wednesday at the Bonneville Courthouse. The deal reached with prosecutors states that Tapp is released on time served, however the first-degree murder conviction stands. Taylor Carpenter / tcarpenter@postregister.com

Chris Tapp hugs Jeremy Sargis after his post conviction relief hearing at the Bonneville Courthouse on Wednesday. Taylor Carpenter / tcarpenter@postregister.com

Chris Tapp is a free man.

“We never thought it would happen,” he said Wednesday on the lawn of the Bonneville County Courthouse.

He was brought into the courtroom in handcuffs shortly before 11 a.m., dressed not in prison garb but in street clothes suitable for his new life. After a series of procedural questions to Tapp, Public Defender John Thomas and Bonneville County Prosecutor Danny Clark, Judge Alan Stephens reduced Tapp’s sentence to time served, vacated his rape conviction and ordered no probation. The bailiffs removed his cuffs.

“I wish you the best,” Stephens told Tapp.

The courtroom was packed with “river rats” — the large group of friends who spent their summers in the mid-1990s hanging out near John’s Hole Bridge. Angie Dodge, of whose 1996 murder Tapp was convicted, was part of the group along with Tapp.

When Stevens’ decision was announced, the river rats broke into raucous cheers and laughter.

The first thing Tapp did when his cuffs were removed was embrace the two women who have worked harder than anyone else to free him: Vera Tapp, his mother, and Carol Dodge, Angie Dodge’s mother.

Then he hugged Jeremy Sargis, a long-time friend who Tapp, in one of his confessions, said participated in the murder. Tapp made that claim after police suggested it to him. Sargis previously said that cloud of suspicion, though it never resulted in any charges, devastated his life. His name appeared next to vague insinuations, and he had to move away to a place where no one knew him.

Finally, Tapp proceeded to the courthouse steps where he and Thomas spoke to the large crowd.

“Chris Tapp is innocent, and I will shout that from the rooftops until the day I die,” Thomas said.

Tapp said he was overwhelmed and scared, but also anxious to see what the world has in store.

“I want to enjoy life,” he said. “I want to see what life has to offer.”

“I thank you for everything,” he told the crowd.

The state of Idaho imprisoned Tapp for 7,353 days; more than 20 years, and roughly half of his life. In addition to the conviction remaining on his record, Tapp’s deal means he cannot seek any further challenges to his conviction or compensation for his imprisonment.

In a prepared statement, Clark said the deal “finalized the question of Christopher Tapp’s guilt.”

“Anyone who says the evidence proves Tapp is innocent is operating from a biased agenda or his or her own personal belief,” Clark said, adding that the state would continue to pursue justice for Angie Dodge.

Before Tapp was released, Carol Dodge took the stand to say her piece.

For years, she said, she thought Tapp killed her daughter.

“For 13 years they programmed my mind to believe you were part of my daughter’s death,” she said to Tapp.

But it isn’t true, Dodge said. Tapp’s DNA is nowhere among the several DNA samples from the crime scene that all point to the same unknown man. Dodge said it was unjust that Tapp would continue to have the murder on his record, that the deal would make him free, but only partly free.

Years ago Dodge went to visit Tapp in jail in Pocatello, and she demanded to know Angie’s last words. Today, she said, she knows that he has no idea what they were.

Dodge was the first to sit through the hours of police interrogation tapes, and she came out the other end believing Tapp knew nothing about the crime.

“We’ve learned a lot Chris,” she said. “We’ve learned a great deal.”

Dodge lamented Tapp’s fate, “living 20 years confined to a four-by-eight cell” surrounded by “concrete walls and steel fences.” Tapp is one among countless people whose lives have been left in wreckage by the murder and the handling of the case, she said.

“He has given 20 years of his life,” Dodge said. “Set him free.”

Brent Dodge, Angie’s brother, also spoke to the court. He, too, said the deal was imperfect. But it would allow them all to begin healing, he said. And that’s what Angie would want for them.

And she would want the killer found, Brent Dodge said.

In her statement, Carol Dodge speculated what Angie might say if she were in the courtroom.

Carol said Angie would remember their “days of laughter” down by the Snake River.

“Today is a new chapter in your life,” Angie would tell him. “Go forward without bitterness.”

“Peace be with you, my friend,” she concluded.

The packed audience rose in silence as Carol Dodge passed, their tears flowing for her loss and at the power of her testimony.

Tapp said his first priority will be to find a job. He plans eventually to move to Tennessee to help care for the children of Lori Hollandsworth, an advocate for Tapp’s innocence who married him in prison. She died in a 2016 car accident, a little more than a year before Tapp won his freedom.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.