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OGDEN -- Debra Brown lowered her head and closed her eyes as she remembered the morning of November 7, 1993.
"I found him laying in his bed," she said Friday, her constant smile fading as she choked up. "He was laying on his side, toward the wall, in a big puddle of blood."
For the last 17 years, Brown has been in the Utah State Prison for the murder of Lael Brown, her boss and her "buddy." Yet for the first time in those 17 years, Brown was finally able to tell her side of the story Friday morning.
With help from the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, Debra is appealing her conviction under a new 2008 law that allows for a determination of factual innocence if new evidence is discovered. Brown's attorneys believe she was convicted on circumstantial evidence, the result of shoddy police work and ineffective attorneys.
"Did you murder Lael Brown?" her attorney Alan Sullivan asked Friday.
"I did not," Brown said immediately and strongly.
"Is there anything else you'd like to tell the judge?" Sullivan asked.
"Regardless of the outcome of today's hearing, I'm grateful that I was able to be here today and finally get to say the things I've got to say," she told 2nd District Judge Michael D. DiReda. "I'm grateful for this."
Brown testified about spending years working for the much-older Lael Brown (no relation), who taught her how to glaze in a window, put up sheetrock and lay floor tiles. Lael gave her money to flee an abusive relationship and made frequent loans when she struggled to pay the bills.
The two would meet several times a week for coffee and pie, and even sneak off occasionally to go fishing. Just before Lael died, Debra brought over a pot of chicken noodle soup that he never got to eat. The pot was still on his doorstep the morning of Nov. 7.
"She's not a murderer," said her niece Jessica Armstrong. "I just know she would never do something like that. We all believe in her."
Yet prosecutors, resumed cross examination Friday afternoon, have painted her as the only person with a key to Lael's home and as someone with a motive, due to the nearly $3,500 in checks she had forged from Lael's account.
After a trial in 1995, where her attorneys didn't put her on the stand, she was sentenced to life in prison.
Sometime after the hearing, which concludes with Debra, the judge will issue a written ruling and Debra could possibly walk out of prison as a free, exonerated woman.
"We'll never get back what was taken away," said her now 35-year-old son Ryan Buttars. "It was very hard on us kids to lose our mother, but we're not bitter at all. We just want her to be free."