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Judge finds convicted murderer innocent of crime

By Emiley Morgan | Posted - May 2, 2011 at 5:25 p.m.



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OGDEN — A judge has determined that a Logan woman who has been in prison for murder since 1995 is "factually innocent."

"The court now determines by clear and convincing evidence that (Debra Brown) did not engage in the conduct for which she was convicted and is, therefore, factually innocent of the aggravated murder of Lael Brown," 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda wrote in a decision released Monday.

The decision came after a first-of-its-kind evidentiary hearing that spanned six days during which attorneys presented evidence to show that Brown, 53, could not have murdered Lael Brown, her boss and friend, in 1993.

Factual Innoncence
Factual innocence is not the same as legal innocence.
  • Factual innocence means that a person did not, in fact, commit the crime.
  • Legal innocence means that there is reasonable doubt about whether the person committed the crime.
The factual innocence statute required the petitioner to establish her factual innocence by clear and convincing evidence.
Source: Utah State Courts

Debra Brown's daughter, Alana Williams, was so emotional upon hearing the news Monday that she had to speak through her tears. "I can't even tell you (how excited I am)," she said.

Debra Brown was the one who found Lael Brown dead with three gunshot wounds in his head. Police said there was no sign of forced entry and Debra Brown was the only person with a key to Lael Brown's home. They also said she had forged more than $3,500 in checks and had a motive to kill him.

Debra Brown was charged months later and convicted by a jury in 1995.

The woman long defended her innocence and in 2002, the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project began an investigation into the case, which culminated in the hearing to determine whether Debra Brown was, in fact, innocent. It was the first factual innocence case to be filed after a 2008 change in state statute that allows for such a hearing when new evidence in a case — even if it is not DNA evidence — is found.

Monday, Brown's attorney described his client's reaction when she was told the news at the state prison.

"She was overwhelmed," attorney Alan Sullivan said. "she was emotionally overwhelmed and grateful for this ruling. You can imagine what an emotional impact this would have on her."

Sullivan said the main issue in the case was Lael Brown's time of death and Debra Brown's alibi. During trial, prosecutors had argued that Lael Brown had been killed the morning of Nov. 6, 1993 — a Saturday — and a full day before his body was discovered, Debra Brown's attorney Alan Sullivan said. Debra Brown had no alibi for that morning.

DiReda said there is clear and convincing evidence that Lael Brown was still alive Saturday morning, the one time when Debra Brown would not have had an alibi. He said, based on testimony given by the state medical examiner, that it was most likely Lael Brown actually died sometime between 9 p.m. Saturday and 3 a.m. Sunday.

DiReda wrote that the facts show that Debra Brown's whereabouts were "firmly established" from 10 a.m. Saturday through Sunday morning.

Under the factual innocence statute, DiReda had to find that there was new evidence in Debra Brown's case that met the clear and convincing standard, not the legal innocence standard, which only requires that there be reasonable doubt.

Debra Brown's attorneys argued that their client had been convicted on circumstantial evidence and that Logan police failed to follow other leads in the case.

Now the state has until May 9 to notify the court whether they plan to appeal. Brown is expected to be released that day.

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Story written by Emiley Morgan with contributions from John Daley.

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