Judge asks for more information in Brown innocence case

Feb 2 2011 - 12:55am

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OGDEN -- The judge is asking for more information in the case of a woman who claims she has been in prison for 15 years for a murder she did not commit.

Debra Brown, 53, has been behind bars since her 1995 conviction in Logan for the shooting death of her employer, Lael Brown, no relation.

Her innocence trial began Jan. 17 in 2nd District Court in Ogden and took 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. The case was moved to Ogden after Logan judges recused themselves.

The innocence trial concluded Jan. 24, and Judge Michael DiReda took the case under advisement. Citing the volume of evidence to review, DiReda said then he couldn't set a firm date for his decision on whether he was going to release Brown. The evidence before him now includes transcripts of a pair of five-day trials.

Two days later DiReda held a telephone conference call with the attorneys involved for questions he had regarding two witnesses.

During the conference call, Alan Sullivan, Brown's lead counsel, told the judge he would file papers on "their involvement with these two witnesses," according to court records.

A follow-up telephone conference is set for Feb. 14.

Attorneys kept quiet about the identity of the two witnesses and the judge's inquiry.

"This litigation is still pending, so it's not appropriate for me to discuss it," said Assistant Utah Attorney General Pat Nolan, part of the team fighting Brown's lawsuit.

"The judge asked us to take another look at a couple of items. Whether we will be filing something in writing, or however, is to be discussed further. There could be more hearings."

Sullivan wasn't available for comment Tuesday, and Chris Martinez, second chair on the case, would only say the two witnesses in question were their witnesses, but they didn't testify at the factual innocence trial. He said the names were not readily available for him to comment on.

Some evidence came in at the trial last month quoting witnesses via deposition transcripts, affidavits or police reports.

Nolan and the attorney general's office were tasked with defending a scattershot Logan Police Department investigation of the Nov. 6, 1993, homicide. Lael Brown was shot in the head three times at point-blank range as he lay in bed.

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.

The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center at the University of Utah took up Brown's cause in 2002, with volunteer attorneys and law students reviewing her prosecution over a seven-year period before filing Brown's lawsuit.

"There is nothing left of the circumstantial case against Debra Brown," Sullivan thundered Jan. 24 in 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 Brown's original trial lawyers nor police in 1993 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. Sheen was never questioned by police and committed suicide in 2007.

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