Bill would make factual innocence harder to prove

Feb 28 2012 - 8:33pm

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A local lawmaker is sponsoring legislation that would make it more difficult for a person convicted of a felony to have that finding overturned with a ruling of factual innocence.

Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, is the sponsor of House Bill 307, which would require that new evidence be presented to prove a person's innocence.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Bountiful, is the co-sponsor of the bill, and he presented it to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday.

The committee approved the bill, 4-0, with three absent. It now goes before the entire Senate for further consideration.

Jensie Anderson, clinical director with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, said in committee meeting legislators have tried to make it more difficult for those who may have been wrongfully found guilty of a crime.

Under the bill, the new evidence needs to be factual and not discovered by the defense.

Weiler said in committee the bill places a higher burden of proof on the person who is convicted by presuming the person is guilty until they can prove their innocence.

"We do not want to incarcerate anyone who is innocent," Dee said during the House leadership meeting.

Dee said the bill makes it clear that anyone who wants to assert factual innocence in an appeal must have "clear, convincing new evidence" that was not presented to the trial court.

He said a 2nd District Court ruling that found Debra Brown factually innocent of a murder she was convicted of is not why he is running the bill.

Dee said evidence was brought forward in Brown's case of a witness who said, "I saw this person here."

The Attorney General's office filed a brief earlier this month with the Utah Supreme Court, appealing the decision to release Brown. The brief claimed 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda erred in finding her factually innocent in the Nov. 6, 1993, murder of 75-year-old Lael Brown, no relation. A witness has stepped forward saying he saw Lael Brown on that day after the time police said he was killed. Debra Brown has maintained her innocence over the years.

Brown's release in May 2011 was the first under the Factual Innocence statute.

The 2008 statute provides a framework for wrongfully incarcerated inmates to sue the state. It also sets a formula for financial compensation at approximately $35,000 for each year behind bars.

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