Exonerated woman Debra Brown talks about freedom, frustration with AG's office

Published: Wednesday, June 1 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

Alana Williams and her mother, Debra Brown, get emotional when Williams discusses what it was like growing up without her mother on Wednesday, June 1, 2011. Williams was eleven years old when her mother went to prison after being convicted of murdering Lael Brown. Debra Brown was exonerated last month after serving seventeen years in prison. (Photo/Laura Seitz)

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — There's a granola bar in Debra Brown's purse in case she gets hungry during the day. Her daughter Alana put it there, a small gesture of love so familiar yet strangely backward to a woman who hasn't been able to mother for 17 years. "We've reversed roles here," Brown says with a smile, looking over at her adult daughter who was only 11 when Brown was whisked out of her life and into prison for a crime she was recently exonerated of. "These are all the things that I used to do for her."

Three weeks ago, Brown was allowed to step back into the lives of her three children — who are no longer children — and her seven grandchildren, many of whom she had only seen in pictures.

Each day is a grand new adventure as Brown reconnects with her loved ones, sleeps on a soft mattress, eats when she wants to and goes on as many bike rides as her legs can handle.

Yet just days after her family did the "victory dance," as Brown called it, they got another phone call.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff had decided his office would appeal the finding of factual innocence, despite calling off a previous intention to appeal just weeks before.

Brown and her family hung up the phone and cried. And prayed. And vowed to fight back however they could.

For 10 years, they had fought alongside the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center to prove that Brown didn't shoot her boss and long-time friend Lael Brown (no relation) in his Logan home in 1993.

After discovering new evidence that bolstered their claims, such as witnesses that were never called, an altered time of death and multiple police errors, Brown's attorneys filed a "petition for determination of factual innocence" under Utah's "Post-Conviction Remedies Act," which allows inmates to present new evidence if it wasn't available at the time of trial.

After reviewing the new evidence, 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda ruled that there was enough doubt surrounding Brown's guilt and declared her factually innocent.

Yet because Brown's is the first case to be tried under the new statute, Shurtleff wanted an appeal to make sure everything was handled correctly. It really isn't about Debra Brown, he said. It's about the process.

"It leaves me going, OK, it's not about me?" a calm but frustrated Brown said Wednesday, the first time she's spoken publicly since Shurtleff's announcement last week. "It's not about taking me back to prison? So what exactly is this about, because it's really affecting me and my family. It's frustrating. It's hard for me to wrap my head around it and understand."

Unfortunately, Katie Monroe understands it all too well. As director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, and one of the key players on Brown's "dream team," Monroe has seen this pushback from officials across the country for cases at the post-conviction stage.

"Their resistance stems from a desire to not have a mistake on the books," she said. Officials don't want to admit that something wasn't handled correctly and that justice wasn't done, she said.

And regarding Shurtleff's worry that Brown's case would open up the floodgates for a slew of future cases?

Impossible, Monroe says. It's not an easy process, not to mention that very few inmates have the type of evidence that Brown had.

Brown's case took eight years to investigate, two years in hearings and will likely take another year for the appeal. The first hearing on the appeal will most likely be in the fall.

Until then, Brown will continue to get up each morning at 5 a.m. for a bath, ("Oh, I love bathtubs," she says with an impish grin) and then watch the sunrise and listen to the birds — sights and sounds she never heard in her cement cell at "the Point."

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