SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Supreme Court notwithstanding, the state Attorney General's Office took pains Friday to say prosecutors still think Debra Brown is guilty.
Shortly after the high court upheld the Logan woman's exoneration by an Ogden judge of a murder conviction, the attorney general's office said Brown wasn't innocent, they'd just lost the appeal.
In May 2011, Ogden 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda ordered Brown released from the Utah State Prison.
DiReda had presided over a six-day factual innocence trial of Brown, the first under a 2008 law that establishes the process and the cash rate for compensating wrongfully incarcerated inmates. Brown was set free after 17 years behind bars, 16 at the state prison, in the 1993 killing in Logan of her friend and employer, Lael Brown, no relation.
Logan judges had recused themselves from hearing the factual innocence case, and it was moved to Ogden. DiReda also ruled the state owes Brown $570,780.
The state's lawyers appealed, and the Utah Supreme Court issued its 56-page ruling Friday upholding DiReda's decision.
"We affirm the post-conviction court," reads the court's conclusion, a 4-1 decision by the five justices. "We hold that a post-conviction determination of factual innocence can be based on both newly discovered evidence and previously available evidence.
"Also, because the state did not properly challenge the post-conviction court's factual findings, we affirm the post-conviction court's ultimate determination that Ms. Brown is factually innocent."
"We want to explain we're not viewing this as a vindication of her innocence claim," Assistant Attorney General Chris Ballard said in an interview. "The court said we didn't properly challenge it, that's all.
"Sure, we're disappointed but we accept the decision," Ballard said. "The Legislature (in enacting the 2008 Factual Innocence Act) set the bar pretty high, and we don't think Debra Brown met it. The Supreme Court thought otherwise."
His office will first review the 56-page decision before deciding whether the statute needs some amending to fix flaws identified by the court's decision. "There's disagreement on what is a factual finding and how we're defining the clear and convincing standard under the statute," Ballard said.
The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center at the University of Utah spent eight years developing Brown's case and contested the appeal. Led by Salt Lake lawyer Allen Sullivan, the center's volunteer lawyers and law students were able to rebut the evidence from a sloppy police investigation that convicted Brown at trial in Logan in 1995.
Key factors in her conviction were the claim Debra Brown had the only other key to Lael Brown's home, there was no forced entry, and forged checks she eventually admitted writing on the dead man's account were the only bank records missing from the home.
But the innocence center found another key, demonstrated Lael Brown's home was in such disrepair anyone could have gotten inside undetected, and showed a great many bank records were actually missing.
Police botched the crime scene, removing bedding Lael Brown was found in and other items because they thought the shooting death a suicide at first.
Ballard said the factual innocence case hung incorrectly on the testimony of one man, Del Hall, who testified before DiReda to seeing Brown alive in the afternoon hours after prosecutors claimed he'd been killed. Hall did not testify at Brown's 1995 trial in Logan, although police had his statement.
As he argued in oral arguments on the appeal last September, Ballard said DiReda assigned too much weight to Hall's testimony.
The innocence center lauded the decision, issuing a statement from Brown, whom the center said would not be granting interviews:
"I'm glad it is over. 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 appreciate all of the time, effort and prayers that have been given on my behalf. What I've been through during the last 20 years is impossible to describe unless you've lived it yourself. 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."