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