OGDEN — The Utah Supreme Court was to hear arguments this morning on an Ogden judge’s release from prison of a woman he found wrongfully convicted of murder.
Second District Judge Michael DiReda presided over a six-day “factual innocence” trial of Debra Brown in May last year, a day longer than the 1995 trial that convicted her of the murder of her friend and employer, Lael Brown, no relation, in Logan.
She was set free after 17 years behind bars, 16 at Utah State Prison.
With officials noting they did not seek Brown’s return to prison, the Utah Attorney General’s Office appealed DiReda’s ruling. They cite disagreements with the judge’s interpretation of a new law and concerns about precedence with other pending cases.
Also in the balance is DiReda’s order, stayed pending appeal, which says the state of Utah owes Brown $570,780 for the wrongful incarceration.
Brown’s is the first case to go to trial under Utah’s 2008 Factual Innocence statute. It sets remuneration based on the average nonfarm salary of a Utah worker during the years of incarceration, capped at 15 years.
The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center worked on Debra Brown’s case for nearly a decade before getting it to trial before DiReda.
Logan judges had recused themselves from hearing the case, and it was moved to the Ogden courts.
The innocence center was assisted by the pro bono work of the Salt Lake City law firm of Snell & Wilmer, led by partner Alan Sullivan. The same lawyers are fighting the appeal today.
On May 9 last year, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, recuperating from chemotherapy, tweeted from his hospital bed that his office would not be appealing DiReda’s ruling.
But he changed his mind at the insistence of staff, who then conducted an unprecedented media campaign.
On condition of honoring an embargo on announcement of the appeal until a May 26 news conference, assistant attorneys general conducted 15 interviews with news outlets, meeting in their Midvale offices to detail the grounds for the appeal.
Officials did not want what they see as complicated legal issues reduced to a news conference sound bite.
At the May 26 news conference, Shurtleff and his appeals division head, Laura Dupaix, talked about the case opening floodgates for pending factual innocence cases.
In a nutshell, the state’s lawyers feel DiReda gave too much weight to one of Brown’s witnesses, Delwin Hall, and not enough to one of theirs, Jennifer Nielsen.
Hall claimed Lael Brown was still alive at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 6, 1993, several hours later than the 1995 jury said Debra Brown killed him.
Nielsen, Lael Brown’s granddaughter, said she saw Debra Brown’s truck parked at Lael’s house around 11:30 a.m. the day he died, and again around noon, which contradicts Brown’s alibi.
Lael Brown’s body, with three bullet holes to the head, was discovered by Debra Brown the evening of Nov. 6, 1993. It was 10 months later that Logan police arrested and jailed her for the homicide.
Police initially thought the death was a suicide, leaving unsecure what was to become a crime scene.
After she was found guilty at trial by the Logan jury, Debra Brown was sentenced to life in prison in December 1995, her conviction upheld on appeal. She had a 2018 parole hearing pending.
The attorney general’s office finally filed a formal appeal of DiReda’s exoneration last February.