OGDEN -- The possibility that an innocent person is residing in Utah State Prison got its first day at trial Tuesday.
Debra Brown, 53, has been in prison since her 1995 conviction for the shooting death of her employer, Lael Brown, no relation.
Her innocence trial is scheduled to run through the month, longer than the five-day trial in Logan that convicted her. It's the first under Utah's fledgling Factual Innocence statute.
The case now before 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda was moved to Ogden from Logan last year when judges there recused themselves.
In opening statements Tuesday, Allan Sullivan, Brown's lead counsel, contended that the most important elements in the closing arguments made by the prosecutor at Brown's 1995 trial no longer hold up.
Those damaging pieces of evidence held that Brown had the only other key to the victim's home, there was no forced entry and evidence of forged checks she wrote on the dead man's checking account were the only bank records missing from his home.
"We now know, however, that these statements are false," Sullivan told DiReda, who is hearing the case without a jury.
Those claims were also crucial to Brown's appeal failing before the Utah Supreme Court.
Sullivan said it is now established another key to Lael Brown's home was in circulation, his home was in such disrepair that forced entry was undetectable and a great many bank records were missing.
Sullivan, a well-known Salt Lake City lawyer, is working pro bono with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center at the University of Utah, which has been investigating Brown's case since 2002.
In his opening statement, Assistant Attorney General Scott Reed said Brown's case would leave the courtroom "thickly shrouded with smoke."
Reed said, under the innocence statute, Brown must provide verifiable proof as to who she feels is the real killer.
"She cannot," Reed said. "The best she can do is say she didn't do it, it must be someone else."
He noted that Debra Brown has now admitted to forging checks on Lael Brown's checking account, something she strongly denied at her trial in Logan. Prosecutors at the time said the murder was committed to cover up the forgeries.
Tuesday's testimony centered on what Sullivan is calling the badly botched Logan police investigation that ignored a second suspect, a man named Bobbie Sheen, now deceased.
The department received numerous tips that Sheen had rented an apartment from Lael Brown, a Logan landlord, and had argued with him over money owed.
Police were also told Sheen had a blue and white vehicle similar to one seen in Lael Brown's driveway the day it is believed he was killed, Nov. 6, 1993, a Saturday.
Sheen's name is found in many places in police reports obtained by Brown's new lawyers, but he was never interviewed by police, according to Tuesday's testimony.
"The circumstantial case against Bobby Sheen is much more substantial than the circumstantial case against Debra Brown," Sullivan said.
The case reconvenes this morning, skips Thursday, then reconvenes again Friday.
Brown is expected to testify Friday, as is Sylvan Bassett, an acquaintance of Sheen who is expected to testify to talking to an anxious Sheen, suddenly awash in cash and talking about hiding a gun, shortly after the murder.
On Tuesday, Logan police said under cross examination that both Bassett and Sheen were long-term criminals known for theft, alcoholism and drug abuse.
Brown was killed by three shots to the right side of his head, the closest a "contact" shot with the gun muzzle against his head, and the furthest fired from 3 to 5 feet away, according to testimony.
The innocence statute provides a framework for the filing of a civil suit against the state of Utah if evidence not available at an inmate's original trial is discovered.
Standards that must be met under the statute are high enough to preclude inmates filing pro se from the state prison, Brown's case being an example. It required more than eight years to bring to trial by a number of attorneys and law students working pro bono through the U of U innocence center.
If an inmate is successful with the suit, the statute provides a formula for compensating an inmate financially, in the range of $35,000 for each year in prison.
At least three other cases suing the state under the innocence statute are pending statewide, including that of a Weber County man. All are still in the motion phase.
Kevin Peterson, of West Haven, who served 15 years in prison, was the first convict to seek compensation under the three-year-old innocence statute.
His case is pending before 2nd District Judge Scott Hadley in Ogden.
The suit includes sworn affidavits from Peterson's two children, saying they were coerced by their mother and stepfather to tell authorities their father sexually molested them. The son and daughter were 11 and 9 at the time.