SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has rejected the latest appeal from the father of the piano group The 5 Browns.
Keith Brown is serving a prison sentence of at least 10 years and up to life after he admitted in 2011 to sexually abusing his three daughters when they were children. He contends Utah law limiting how and when a person can withdraw a guilty plea is unconstitutional, in part because it doesn't guarantee them an attorney.
"We wish to be clear: These arguments raise meaty constitutional questions that deserve our attention," states the unanimous opinion released Thursday, authored by Justice Deno Himonas.
But the justices dismissed the case on procedural grounds. They found state law bars them from considering the arguments because Brown missed early deadlines to raise the issues.
Moreover, Himonas wrote, "Brown is not really claiming that he was deprived of a direct appeal; rather, he wants a do-over."
Deondra Brown said she and her siblings are relieved: "Today is a good day."
"After 10 years of consistent appeals and challenges, we are happy to finally have a chance to catch our breaths," Brown said in a statement. The siblings agree the constitutional questions need to be addressed, but "appreciate that State v. Brown was not the case to have these discussions."
"We are heartened that the court saw the case for what it is — 'he wants a do-over,'" Deondra Brown continued. "At this point, we will continue on as we always have with our lives, our music, our advocacy work, and the beautiful families and relationships we have created."
(Keith) Brown is not really claiming that he was deprived of a direct appeal; rather, he wants a do-over.
–Utah Supreme Court Justice Deno Himonas
Attorney Ann Marie Taliaferro, who represents Keith Brown, said other challenges to the law have resulted in similar opinions from the state's high court.
"We'll keep trying, and eventually, hopefully, we will get the issues before the court in a way that we will be able to address them, because they are important and they're crucial," she said. "When a criminal defendant pleads guilty, they give up basically all of their rights."
Defendants can seek to withdraw guilty pleas ahead of the time a judge reads their sentence, or within a year through Utah's Post-Conviction Remedies Act. But unlike other criminal defendants facing charges or appealing a sentence, they're not guaranteed an attorney. And if they miss the one-year deadline, they're out of luck, she said.
The Utah Attorney General's Office was also hoping for clarity.
"We have a lot of cases where defendants are trying to raise these same issues and say there's a problem with the plea withdraw statute," said Christopher Ballard, Utah's assistant solicitor general. "In some ways, we were hoping that this case would answer these issues once and for all."
Defendants should have the right to tell a judge if they believe their lawyer gave poor or unclear advice, but guilty pleas shouldn't be open to extensive legal challenges after a person is sentenced, Ballard said. If the court deems the law unconstitutional, he said, it could invite a flood of new legal challenges to old cases.
"Everybody should be able to move on. It saves everyone's time and resources: the prosecutors, defense attorneys, the courts, and most especially, the victims," he said. "They should be able to know, 'This person has pleaded guilty. This case is over. We can move on.'"