The Utah Supreme Court upheld a decision that freed Debra Brown from prison.  She served 17 years for a murder she did not commit.  Justices voted 4-1 in agreeance with 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda’s decision that Brown is factually innocent.

 “We affirm the post-conviction court,” Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote. “We hold that a post-conviction determination of factual innocence can be based on both newly discovered evidence and previously available evidence.”

The decision means that Brown, who is now 55, is officially exonerated in the 1993 shooting death of Lael Brown, 72.  This also means that she will be eligible for Utah’s compensation law, which may total $500,000 in restitution.  The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center worked on Brown’s case for more than 10 years.  Jensie Anderson, the legal director of RMIC, said that Brown isn’t concerned about the money she just wanted closure.  Brown issued a statement that read:

“I’m glad it is over,” she said. “I’ve always been innocent of this crime. I knew it; my family and friends knew it and the wonderful people at the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center knew it. I’m happy the courts have finally said it, too.  I’m relieved to finally put all of that behind me and move on with my life. I am grateful to everyone who has stood by me, I love you and I thank you.”

“She loves the outdoors and loves to spend time just enjoying the openness,” Anderson said of Brown. “I spoke with her as soon as I learned the decision. I said to her, you’re innocent and she said, of course I am. I knew that…I’ve known Debra Brown for 20 years and I’ve never heard her laugh with that kind of joy…It was music to the ears…”We’re pleased Deb Brown’s long ordeal is finally over.”

Assistant Attorney General Christopher Ballard disagreed with the ruling.  He said that he believes the court’s interpretation of Utah’s innocence claim statute is wrong.  Prosecutors argued that the evidence used to exonerate Brown needed to be “clear and convincing” and that the evidence was not.  Ballard said the Legislature “had set the bar at the appropriate height,” but DiReda’s opinion set the standard too low.  Ballard says that’s why he appealed, “Our point was the post-conviction court — Judge DiReda — got this wrong,” Ballard said. “He set the bar too low…by allowing this to be based on both old and new evidence…”  Ballard agreed instead with the lone dissenting justice who wrote that it was a mistake to rely on Brown’s alibi as evidence, “If the doubt afforded under the clear and convincing standard allows an alibi as weak as Ms. Brown’s to stand as proof of factual innocence, we have created a very low hurdle indeed,” Justice Thomas Lee wrote.  However, Ballard says he respects the court’s decision and understands it, but thinks the Legislature needs to revise the innocence statute.  He said that while the ruling exonerates Brown, it is “hardly a ringing endorsement of Debra Brown’s factual innocence…They did not say Debra Brown had proven her factual innocence by clear and convincing evidence…Instead what the court said was the state did not properly challenge Judge DiReda’s finding that she is factually innocent.”

Lael Brown, who is of no relation to Debra Brown, was her boss and friend.  Debra Brown found him dead in his home with three gunshot wounds to the head.  Lael Brown had given Debra Brown a key to his home because of their friendship.  Police say there was no sign of forced entry and Debra Brown was the only person with a key.  They also said that she forged $3,500 in checks and thus had a motive to kill him.  A jury convicted Brown in 1995.  She always maintained her innocence.  In 2002, the RMIC took the case.  When her factual innocence case was presented to DiReda, it was the first hearing of its kind in Utah.  This type of innocence claim was only made possible by Utah’s 2008 law that allows for a determination of “factual innocence” when new exculpatory evidence is discovered.  DNA is present in less than 1% of all criminal cases.  So, DNA exonerations are rarely possible for an innocent person who is wrongfully convicted.  On May 2, 2011, DiReda found that Brown was innocent and had been wrongfully convicted.  She was released a week later.

Prosecutors had argued during the trial that Lael Brown had been killed on the morning of November 6, 1993, a Saturday, and a full day before his body was discovered.  They also told the jury that Debra Brown had no alibi.  Two new witnesses testified at the hearing that Lael Brown was alive Saturday night.  Judge DiReda found that there was clear and convincing evidence that Lael Brown was in fact alive on Saturday night.  The judge said that based on testimony given by the medical examiner, it was most likely that Lael Brown died sometime between 9 p.m. Saturday and 3 a.m. Sunday.  Brown’s attorney, Alan Sullivan, said that there were other suspects who should have been investigated in Lael Brown’s death and that the case against Debra Brown was circumstantial.  The appellate attorney argued that the fact that Debra Brown had a key was irrelevant because the backdoor to Lael’s house didn’t lock.  He argued that the evidence they presented was new and that it “placed in question the integrity of the entire investigation” and proved that Debra was innocent.

The dissenting justice, Lee, also wrote in his minority judgment that the majority opinion was based upon grounds not asserted by Brown in her legal motions, “We owe the parties more in a case of this (or any) magnitude.  We should decide this important case on its merits. And we should reverse under the law, even if that decision runs counter to the outcome…dictated by our human compassion…”

She served 17 years in prison for a crime she did not commit.)

  1. Lon Spector says:

    Sometimes justice prevails. Very rarely, better late then never. But sometimes justice prevails.


Join the Discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s