SALT LAKE CITY -- A woman imprisoned for 17 years for the killing of her boss is factually innocent of the murder, the Utah Supreme Court ruled Friday in a decision state prosecutors strongly disputed.
The woman said no evidence existed she was the killer.
Debra Brown's conviction was reversed in May 2011, and she was the first inmate to be freed under a 2008 Utah law that allows convictions to be overturned based on factual evidence or testimony rather than just DNA proof.
The Utah Attorney General's Office appealed, and it continued Friday to insist that the woman had the motive and opportunity to kill Logan landlord Lael Brown, 75, who is no relation.
Debra Brown, who worked for the landlord, has admitted she was forging checks in his name, and prosecutors said she killed him to avoid being discovered.
Brown's release turned on what prosecutors called the dubious testimony of a single, post-trial witness who claimed to have seen the victim alive in a restaurant many hours after the state said he was shot in the head. That testimony refuted the state's theory that Lael Brown was shot early in the morning of Nov. 6, 1993. Brown had multiple alibis for much of that day.
"There was no physical evidence, no eyewitnesses -- nothing that connected Debra Brown to the case," Jensie Anderson, legal director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center in Salt Lake City, said Friday.
"All the evidence used to convict was absolutely wrong," said Anderson, also a University of Utah law professor. "This was an innocent woman convicted. For the Attorney General's Office to say this was somehow a simple or easy case is disingenuous."
The ruling sets a low standard of evidence for overturning convictions, Assistant Attorney General Christopher Ballard said Friday.
"She basically said, 'Here's some additional evidence that calls into question my trial, and I had an alibi,'" Ballard said.
The defense never called the witness for the original trial, and the state argued it was too late for his testimony. But the Supreme Court rejected that argument as part of its ruling Friday.
"We hold that a post-conviction determination of factual innocence can be based on both newly discovered evidence and previously available evidence," the justices said in a 4-1 decision. "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."
The decision not only keeps Debra Brown out of prison but makes her eligible for $570,000 in restitution for a wrongful conviction. A reversal from the Supreme Court could have sent her back to prison.
"I'm glad it is over," Debra Brown said in a statement from her attorneys Friday. "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."
The state stuck to its original theory of the killing. Debra Brown acknowledged leaving a bowl of soup at the door of her boss' house the day the state says he was shot, and discovering his body the next morning. She had keys to his home and had been forging checks in his name, Ballard said.
Lael Brown was in bed with three gunshot wounds to the head.
"She murdered him because he found out she was forging his checks and stealing, and he was going to report her," Ballard said last September.
Debra Brown was looking forward to having her conviction permanently expunged. "It's hard to live life with a murder conviction on your record," she said previously. On Friday she declined interview requests through her lawyer.
Anderson said the Attorney General's Office has nobody to blame but itself for appealing a case it now complains resulted in a bad precedent.
"Our belief from the physical evidence and medical examiner's findings is that Lael Brown would have to have been killed after 6 p.m. on that Saturday," Anderson said.
"Debra was at her son's basketball game at Skyview High School, went grocery shopping, to a video store, and then home with a boyfriend to cook dinner and watch a movie."
It was the next morning that Debra Brown says she discovered the landlord dead while checking on him. Her defense argued during factual innocence hearings that the real killer was an angry tenant who had been evicted by Lael Brown.