SALT LAKE CITY — State lawyers appealed a ruling that exonerated a Utah woman after she served 17 years in prison for the murder of a Logan man.
Debra Brown has been free since May after becoming the first inmate exonerated under a 2008 Utah law allowing convictions to be overturned based on new factual — not scientific — evidence.
The Utah Attorney General’s office filed its opening brief Tuesday with the Utah Supreme Court. It claimed 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda erred in finding Debra Brown factually innocent in the Nov. 6, 1993, murder of 75-year-old Lael Brown, no relation.
"The state’s theory at trial and the evidence at trial was strong," said Christopher Ballard, an assistant Utah attorney general who filed the appeal.
DiReda based his ruling on testimony by witness Delwin Hall, who said he saw Lael Brown alive later the same day that prosecutors claimed the defendant shot her longtime friend and employer at his home.
"A reasonable jury could believe Hall was wrong about the day he saw Lael Brown and look at this evidence and still find her guilty," Ballard said. "She hasn’t proven her factual innocence."
Prosecutors maintained Debra Brown killed Lael Brown because she had forged checks totaling $3,600. She has maintained her innocence throughout the years. Though she initially denied forging the checks, she admitted the forgeries last year.
The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center worked on Debra Brown’s case for nearly a decade before bringing it to DiReda.
Katie Monroe, the center’s executive director, said DiReda was careful in his ruling and is the only judge who has reviewed all the evidence.
Monroe said Debra Brown has a positive outlook about the latest news.
"She is optimistic and to the degree she can is moving on with her life," Monroe said.
Brown, now 53, was a model prisoner for 17 years. Since her release she has been baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and in October took a job in Smithfield, Utah, working at a deli inside a grocery store.
Monroe said Brown is on vacation this week, fishing in Idaho with family members.
"We are absolutely convinced Deb is innocent and we believe the citizens of Utah believe that as well," Monroe said. "The appeal is unfortunate, unnecessary and won’t be successful."
The defense has until April 1 to file its response. The Utah Supreme Court likely wouldn’t hear oral arguments until the fall.
"Our hope is to get this resolved as soon as possible for Debra. This is the one thing that still hangs over her," said Jensie Anderson, legal director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center.