OGDEN -- In a nation of laws, on Monday the law was evolving as it rarely does in the thin air of an Ogden courtroom for three hours of closing arguments about whether an innocent person resides at the Utah State Prison.
Debra Brown, 53, has been behind bars since her 1995 conviction for the shooting death of her employer, Lael Brown, no relation.
Her innocence trial, begun here Jan. 17, lasted five days, the same length of time as the trial in Logan that convicted her. Her case is the first to go to trial under Utah's fledgling Factual Innocence statute, which sets the standards by which an inmate can sue the state for wrongful incarceration.
Her fate is now is in the lap of 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda. It was moved to Ogden from Logan last year when judges there recused themselves.
"This court is poised to write a new chapter in the annals of Utah history," Assistant Utah Attorney General Scott Reed told DiReda in his closing arguments.
"This courtroom has become a kiln in which a new instrument of justice will be forged."
Reed and fellow Assistant Attorney General Pat Nolan were tasked with defending a deeply flawed Logan Police Department investigation of the Nov. 6, 1993, homicide. Lael Brown was shot at point-blank range three times in the head.
His body was removed before the lead detective arrived on the scene. Patrolmen, mistakenly thinking they had come upon a suicide, did not preserve the crime scene. A bloody handprint on the front door was not preserved or analyzed.
Reed made no attempt to defend the police mishandling of the case. "Certainly there are things that could have and should have been done better ... but that's not why we're here."
The question to be answered under the Factual Innocence statute, he said, is whether Debra Brown's lawyers have established that "she did not engage in the conduct for which she's been convicted," not whether police or Brown's trial lawyers made mistakes. Well-known Ogden defense lawyer the late John Caine was her lead counsel in what was a death-penalty case with veteran Cache County public defender Shannon Demler.
The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center at the University of Utah took up Brown's cause in 2002, with volunteer attorneys and law students reviewing the original case over a seven-year period before filing the lawsuit.
"There is nothing left of the circumstantial case against Debra Brown," Brown's lead counsel, Allan Sullivan, said in his closing arguments. " ... No reasonable juror would have found her guilty if they'd known what we know now from the investigation we've made and the evidence we found."
Neither the defense lawyers nor police in 1995 looked seriously at a strong second suspect, a man named Bobby Sheen, who was immediately named to police as being angry at Lael Brown for evicting him a week earlier, Sullivan said. Sheen committed suicide in 2007, and was never questioned by police.
Before the closing arguments, DiReda ruled against Reed's motion for dismissal made at the close of testimony Friday.
"I am finding there is enough evidence presented to establish a prima facie case that Ms. Brown is entitled to relief," the judge said.
Prima facie is Latin for "aa'on its face,' or that there is enough substance for a jurist to make a decision," Chris Martinez, one of Sullivan's co-counsels associated with the innocence center, said after the hearing.
"Prima facie just means there is some basis for the case, that there is more than nothing," Reed said after the hearing.
"Now he'll have to go figure out how much more than nothing there is."
DiReda said at the close of the hearing he would take the case under advisement and issue a decision in the future. He apologized because he couldn't give a time estimate on when he'll decide because of the complexities involved.
Kathryn Monroe, director of the innocence center, said afterwards she wouldn't be surprised if the decision took six months.
A plethora of Brown's hopeful family members and supporters have come from as far as Logan and Idaho, including her three adult children, sometimes filling DiReda's courtroom to standing room only status.
"I've got a bicycle for her I just painted again," said Dave Scott, of Twin Falls, her brother. "I've got her room all ready. She's going to come live with us. She doesn't want to go back to Logan."