Court upholds decision that freed Debra Brown after 17 years in prison

Published: Friday, July 12 2013 10:30 a.m. MDT

Debra Brown smiles after her Utah Supreme Court hearing on the Utah Attorney General's effort to reverse Brown's exoneration at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City Sept. 4, 2012. The Utah Supreme Court on Friday upheld the determination that led to her dismissal.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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.

"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."

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.

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