IDAHO FALLS — Christopher Tapp walked out of the Bonneville County courthouse Wednesday afternoon to a crowd of people cheering.
“I never thought this day would come,” Tapp said. “Thank you, everybody, for supporting me all these years.
His attorney, public defender John Thomas, exclaimed. “This is it, Chris. Freedom!”
One hour earlier, Tapp appeared in handcuffs before 7th District Judge Alan Stephens for a resentencing hearing he thought may never happen.
The courtroom was packed as Stephens explained an agreement reached between Thomas and Bonneville County Prosecutor Danny Clark that negotiated Tapp’s freedom after more than 20 years in prison.
Tapp was arrested in 1996. He was accused of raping and murdering 18-year-old Angie Dodge at her I Street apartment. Several months later, he confessed to Idaho Falls Police detectives that he had committed the crime. He was convicted in 1997, but serious questions were raised during the following years that the confession was coerced or false.
Numerous DNA samples left at the crime scene did not match Tapp’s, and the man to whom the DNA belonged has never been identified.
Judges for Justice, the Idaho Innocence Project and other organizations have been working for years to overturn Tapp’s conviction and have him released from custody.
One of Tapp’s biggest supporters has been Carol Dodge, Angie’s mother. She has tirelessly fought to get Tapp out of prison and believes the man who murdered her daughter is still out there.
Clark told EastIdahoNews.com that Thomas approached him Saturday with an agreement that would allow Tapp to walk free.
The agreement stipulated the first-degree murder charge would remain on Tapp’s record, but the rape charge would be dismissed. He would be resentenced to serve 20 years for the murder but get credit for time served. Tapp would give up all rights to appeal, and the case would essentially be over.
Clark agreed to the proposal and a resentencing hearing with Judge Stephens was scheduled for Wednesday.
Tapp’s mother, Vera, was one of the first people to arrive at the Bonneville County Courthouse.
“I never thought this day would come,” Vera Tapp said. “I’ve been praying for this day. I’m praying for both Christopher and Carol Dodge. If it wasn’t for Carol Dodge, we wouldn’t be here today. I’m excited to give him a hug – when we can be one to one.”
Moments later, Dodge entered the courthouse with her son, Brent.
“I’m so overwhelmed. I don’t know what to say,” Dodge said, trying to hold back tears. “I’m grateful for this moment. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve worked really hard to get it to come.”
As numerous media outlets from across the country awaited the arrival of Tapp, he emerged from a nearby courtroom wearing a white collared shirt, black dress pants and tennis shoes.
When asked how he felt, Tapp simply responded, “Grateful. Nervous.”
He entered the courtroom and smiled as he saw several friends, Dodge and his mother.
Stephens explained the agreement to Tapp, and Tapp said he understood that he will always have the murder conviction on his record, but the rape charge is dropped.
Dodge then took the stand and said she was there not as a victim, but as a “survivor of a horrible crime that took my daughter’s life.”
She read from a letter she said Angie inspired her to write for Tapp.
“Today is a new chapter. Go forward without bitterness and without a hardened heart,” Dodge said. “From this day forward it’s up to you – the path that you choose. Stay clean and stay sober. Stay on track. When you feel strong, take big giant steps. When you’re weak, lean on your higher power. Your mother has loved you unconditionally through all of this, and now it’s time for you to give back.”
As she left the stand, the courtroom audience stood in silence.
Dodge’s son and Angie’s brother, Brent, then took the stand and said today’s events are about healing.
“Although the agreement isn’t perfect, it does provide the catalyst to allow healing to take place,” Brent Dodge said. “Healing not only for our family, but the community and the public servants who have worked on our behalf to see this through.”
Stephens asked Tapp if he had any questions, to which Tapp responded that he did not.
“I recognize the impact the ruling I make today will have not only on the victims but also on yourself and the public in the state of Idaho,” Stephens said. “Both the attorneys for the state and your attorney have worked diligently to reach a resolution that, in my mind, fills the needs for justice and fairness.”
With that, the hearing was over, and Tapp was free to go.
Tapp walks free
A Bonneville County deputy removed handcuffs from Tapp’s wrists as everyone in the courtroom audience stood and clapped.
Carol Dodge and Vera Tapp embraced Chris as all three wept.
Tapp then left the courtroom with Thomas. They walked down a staircase and outside the front doors of the courthouse.
Nearly 50 people gathered outside. They applauded and cheered.
“I’m just grateful for everything,” Tapp said. “It feels different to not have handcuffs on. I want to prove to everybody that I can be something and do something right.”
Tapp continued, “I’m thankful for all the time and energy Carol has given me to help me get to this point. She’s continued to believe in my innocence and I’m grateful.”
Tapp hugged supporters and posed for photographers for nearly an hour.
Vera offered to go out for pizza for dinner, but Tapp responded that he wants steak.
He said he will spend time with family over the next few days before leaving the state to get a job.
As he roamed freely through the crowd of friends gathered, with his mother and Carol Dodge by his side, Tapp remarked, “I never thought this day would come. Never. Ever. And now it’s here.”