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Utah Supreme Court upholds decision to free woman accused of 1995 murder

By Emiley Morgan | Posted - Jul 12th, 2013 @ 3:53pm

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court upheld Friday a decision that freed Debra Brown from prison after she had served 17 years for murder.

Four of the five justices joined in the opinion, agreeing with 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda's decision that found Brown 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 not only that Brown, 55, is now officially exonerated in the 1993 shooting death of Lael Brown, 72, but that the woman is entitled to compensation totaling almost $500,000. Jensie Anderson, legal director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center that worked on Brown's case for more than a decade, said Brown is entitled to $36,000 a year for up to 15 years.

She said Brown wasn't concerned about the money so much as receiving closure. Brown reiterated this in a statement issued Friday.

“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,” Brown said.

When Anderson called to tell Brown the news that she was innocent Friday, Brown told her she was planning to spend the day picking berries.

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"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.' And then she actually started to laugh.

"I've known Debra Brown for 20 years and I've never heard her laugh with that kind of joy and that kind of relief. It was music to the ears."

Anderson said she applauded the high court's ruling and absolutely agreed with its findings. "We're pleased Deb Brown's long ordeal is finally over."

But assistant attorney general Christopher Ballard said the court's interpretation of the statute differs from prosecutors' interpretation and what he believes the Utah Legislature intended. Prosecutors had long argued that the evidence to exonerate Brown needed to be new or "clear and convincing" and believed that the evidence presented by Brown was neither.

Ballard said the Legislature "had set the bar at the appropriate height," but DiReda's opinion set the standard too low, prompting the attorney general's office to appeal.

"Our point was the post-conviction court — Judge DiReda — got this wrong," Ballard said. "He set the bar too low and he misinterpreted the statute by allowing this to be based on both old and new evidence, and so our point in taking this appeal was to clarify the law and clarify the correct standard."

They did not say Debra Brown had proven her factual innocence by clear and convincing evidence, which is the standard she had to satisfy.

–Christopher Ballard, assistant attorney general

Ballard pointed to the dissenting opinion of Justice Thomas Lee, who wrote that it was a mistake to rely on Brown's alibi.

"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," Lee wrote.

Ballard said he respects the court's decision and understands that it is the final word in the case, but he thinks the Legislature may need to revise the statute. He also said that while the ruling exonerated Brown, it was "hardly a ringing endorsement of Debra Brown's factual innocence" because the majority opinion was based less on the evidence itself and more on whether the state had properly challenged DiReda's factual findings.

"They did not say Debra Brown had proven her factual innocence by clear and convincing evidence, which is the standard she had to satisfy," Ballard said. "Instead what the court said was the state did not properly challenge Judge DiReda's finding that she is factually innocent."

Lael Brown, Debra Brown's boss and friend, was found dead in his home with three gunshot wounds to the head.

Though the two are not related, Lael Brown entrusted Debra Brown with a key to his home. 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.

We should reverse under the law, even if that decision runs counter to the outcome seemingly dictated by our human compassion for a sympathetic party like Ms. Brown.

–Justice Thomas Lee

A jury convicted Debra Brown of murder in 1995, but Brown was adamant that she was innocent, and in 2002, the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project took up her case.

When her factual innocence case was presented to DiReda, it was the first hearing of its kind in Utah. Such a hearing was made possible under a 2008 law that allows for a determination of "factual innocence" when new evidence is discovered that could prove an individual's innocence.

DiReda found that the woman was, in fact, innocent on May 2, 2011, and Brown was released from prison one week later.

DiReda's decision hinged on Lael Brown's time of death and Debra Brown's alibi. During the 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 had no alibi for that morning.

Two new witnesses testified at last year's evidentiary hearing that they saw Lael Brown alive that Saturday night, leading DiReda to determine that 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. The judge said that based on testimony given by the medical examiner, it was most likely that Lael Brown actually died sometime between 9 p.m. Saturday and 3 a.m. Sunday.

Debra Brown's attorney, Alan Sullivan, has said previously there were others who should have been investigated in Lael Brown's death and that the case against his client was a circumstantial one. He said the notion that Debra Brown was the only one who could enter the home without forcing entry was irrelevant, because the back door of Lael Brown's home didn't even lock properly.

He argued that the evidence they presented was new and that it "placed in question the integrity of the entire investigation." More than that, it proved his client was absolutely innocent.

Lee was the lone justice to dissent in the majority decision, stating that "the grounds on which the majority rests its decision were never asserted by Ms. Brown in her briefs or at oral arguments."

"We owe the parties more in a case of this (or any) magnitude," Lee wrote. "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 seemingly dictated by our human compassion for a sympathetic party like Ms. Brown."

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