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SALT LAKE CITY — Attorneys for Debra Brown — who was recently released from prison after 17 years — announced late Wednesday that the Utah Attorney General's Office will appeal the ruling that found the woman factually innocent of murder.
“In a surprise and disturbing change of events, the Attorney General's Office has switched course and now plans to appeal a Utah judge's ruling that Debra Brown is innocent,” a news release states.
Though the release said that the state will seek to “send Debra Brown back to prison,” assistant attorney general Scott Reed was adamant that is not the case.
This is not vindication, this is not retaliation. It's about finality and the integrity of the factual innocence process.
–Scott Reed, Utah assistant attorney general
"We are not ever, at any point, going to seek to put her back in prison," Reed said.
He said the appeal would have more to do with ensuring that the statute used to determine Brown’s innocence — and with Brown’s case being the first to put it to the test — was applied correctly.
"This is not vindication, this is not retaliation," Reed said. “It's about finality and the integrity of the factual innocence process."
Brown, 53, was released from prison on May 9 of this year — more than 17 years since she was incarcerated for the 1993 slaying of her boss and friend, Lael Brown, 75. The woman long-maintained her innocence and the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project took on her case in 2002.
Under a 2008 statute that allowed for a factual innocence hearing if new evidence is found in a criminal case — even if it's not DNA evidence — Brown's case was brought before 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda.
DiReda ultimately determined that Debra Brown was, in fact, innocent based on testimony provided by two witnesses who said they saw Lael Brown alive the night after prosecutors said he had been killed.
"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," DiReda wrote in his ruling.
He ordered Brown's release from prison and that she receive $570,780 in financial assistance over time.
Shortly after DiReda issued his ruling, the Utah Attorney General's Office announced they would appeal, saying a notice of intent to appeal has been filed and a formal appeal would follow within 30 days.
Just nine hours after that announcement, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff sent a message over his Twitter feed contradicting the announcement. In response to a Twitter plea asking him not to appeal Brown's case, he wrote, "We won't appeal."
Later, Shurtleff issued a statement explaining why he decided against appealing the judge's ruling.
“In the interest of justice and mercy the time has come to bring closure to Debra Brown and everyone involved in this case," Shurtleff said. “She has served 17 years in prison and a judge has found her factually innocent. This was Utah’s first case like this and I am convinced these types of challenges will be rare. Our office will vigilantly fight to make sure the justice system punishes the guilty and protects the innocent.”
But the intent to appeal stayed in place, giving the Attorney General's Office 30 days to make a final decision.
"Behind closed doors (attorneys) vacillate several times," Reed explained.
The attorney general’s office has called a Thursday press conference to discuss the issues it has with the case, including evidence implicating Debra Brown.
“The evidence is still extremely strong that she killed Lael Brown,” said Laura Dupaix, who heads up the office's criminal appeals division. “We know the killer had a key, we know they knew where to find Lael Brown's gun and we know they took the October 1993 bank statement which happened to have the canceled checks forged by Deb Brown.”
Dupaix said that this case doesn’t meet the clear and convincing evidence standard that is required under the state statute. She also said it could “open the floodgates” for inmates pursuing similar determinations without DNA evidence or time limitations.
Those in the attorney general’s office want the case — which could set a precedent — be reviewed by a higher court.
Dupaix said the case will go to the Utah Supreme Court, who has the option of referring it back to the Utah Court of Appeals, a move Dupaix hopes they will not make because the case is the first of its kind.
"This isn't about winning,” she said. “This is about seeing that justice is done, that the law is applied in a fair manner."
The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center called the appeal “incredibly irresponsible to taxpayers and cruel to Debra Brown and her family and supporters. After being promised that the state would not appeal, Ms. Brown and her family were beginning to put their long ordeal behind them and to heal.”
But Reed pointed out that, in all of this, there has been the family of Lael Brown, which lost any closure they may have had when it comes to the slaying of their loved one.
"As much as Debra Brown is entitled to exoneration their family is equally entitled to know who killed Lael Brown. It's virtually impossible to reopen this investigation and look for the real killer."