Woman exonerated after 15 years in prison

May 2 2011 - 11:44pm

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File photo/Standard-Examiner
Debra Brown enters Judge Michael DiReda’s 2nd District Court in Ogden in January.
File photo/Standard-Examiner
Debra Brown enters Judge Michael DiReda’s 2nd District Court in Ogden in January.

Found innocent Monday of the murder for which she has been in prison 15 years, Debra Brown has to wait one more week, at least, for her release.

The Utah Attorney General's Office asked for the week to consider whether to appeal 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda's ruling Monday in Ogden that exonerated her.

DiReda issued the one-week stay of his ruling after an afternoon telephone conference.

Brown, 53, has been in prison since her 1995 conviction for the 1993 shooting death of her employer, Lael Brown, no relation, in Logan.

Her innocence trial in January before DiReda lasted a week, almost identical to the five-day trial in Logan that convicted her.

Hers was the first case to go to trial under Utah's fledgling Factual Innocence statute.

Alan Sullivan, a well-known Salt Lake City lawyer, took Brown's case to trial. He worked pro bono with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center at the University of Utah.

The center has been investigating Brown's case since 2002, filing her grievance early in 2009. The case was moved to Ogden after Logan's judges recused themselves.

"The attorney general's office will take some time to collect their thoughts, and we're very hopeful Debra will be released right after the stay expires at 2:30 p.m. Monday (May 9)," Sullivan said.

He said the stay is automatic under Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. If DiReda's decision is appealed, Sullivan said, it's also very likely Brown can be released from prison pending the appeal.

"Certainly that's the position we'll argue."

Sullivan said he and Jensie Anderson, president of the innocence center, and its director Katy Monroe, plus his trial co-counsels Jacqueline Hopkinson and Chris Martinez, all visited Brown at the prison to give her the news around 1:30 p.m. Monday.

"She was overwhelmed," Sullivan said of her reaction. "She was just overwhelmed. You can imagine what this means to her.

"She's a very self-possessed and very centered person. But there were tears. And laughter."

The Factual Innocence statute provides a formula for financially compensating those exonerated to the tune of about $35,000 a year, officials have said, which could mean more than $500,000 in Brown's case.

"We're not sure on the monetary question," Sullivan said. "We haven't focused on that at all."

All he knew, he said, was that the annual figure is based on the average, nonfarm salary of a Utah worker and it has a 15-year cap.

It was Debra Brown who found Lael Brown's body on a Sunday, Nov. 7, 1993, according to the facts of the case. He had been shot three times in the head at close range and died in his bed.

The innocence center at trial in January was able to attack a badly botched investigation of what officers assumed was a suicide, removing Brown's body from the scene before the lead detective arrived.

Debra Brown was sentenced Dec. 11, 1995, to life in prison with possible parole.

The Utah Supreme Court upheld her conviction Oct. 24, 1997.

At the time, it was believed Brown had the only key to Lael Brown's home and her motivation was to cover up her embezzlement of $3,500 from him.

But the innocence center found another suspect with equal motivation, a man named Bobby Sheen, now deceased, whom Lael Brown had evicted from one of his rental properties.

Sheen had implicated himself in the killing in remarks to friends but was never questioned by police.

DiReda's decision to exonerate Brown focused on testimony in the factual innocence trial that Brown was still alive that Saturday afternoon, long after the estimated 7 a.m. time of death for which Debra Brown had no alibi.

"The court finds by clear and convincing evidence that Lael Brown was alive on Saturday afternoon, November 6th," DiReda wrote in his decision issued Monday morning.

"Consequently, Petitioner (Debra Brown) could not have killed Lael Saturday morning as the State argued at trial."

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