SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Debra Brown has been free for nearly 16 months after spending 17 years behind bars for a murder she always maintained she didn’t commit.
Now the Utah Supreme Court will decide if the Utah grandmother was correctly exonerated and should remain free.
The state’s high court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Tuesday morning on the state’s appeal of a factual innocence ruling that exonerated the Logan woman.
“This is going to set the benchmark for how much evidence and what quality of evidence you have to put on to meet the standard of clear and convincing evidence of factual innocence,” said Christopher Ballard, an assistant attorney general for Utah. “The trial court said she met that. We are saying she did not.”
Brown, now 55, was released from Utah State Prison in May 2011 after a detailed ruling by 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda. She was the first inmate freed under a 2008 Utah law that allows convictions to be overturned based on new factual – not scientific – evidence.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff initially said he would not appeal Brown’s release but later decided to because he believed the judge had wrongly interpreted the law.
Attorneys representing Brown say the key issue is whether exoneration must be based exclusively on newly discovered evidence or all the evidence available to the judge.
The conviction of Brown was based on arguments that longtime friend and employer Lael Brown, who was not related to Debra Brown, died on the morning of Nov. 6, 1993.
The 75-year-old was found dead at his home, in bed with three gunshot wounds to the head.
DiReda ruled a witness statement that Lael Brown was seen alive later that day supported the defendant’s innocence claim.
Alan Sullivan, one of Brown’s attorneys, said a factual innocence ruling must be based on all the evidence and maintained there was enough to support DiReda’s ruling.
Prosecutors disagree. “At best she raised doubts about the timing. That’s not enough for the statute,” Ballard said.
Sullivan said Brown will be at Tuesday’s hearing.
“She’s doing fine. She’s enjoying her freedom. She is working at a manual labor job,” said Sullivan, who did not want to disclose where Brown lives and works now.
Brown, if the Utah Supreme Court upholds her exoneration, would have her record expunged and could collect on $570,000 in restitution ordered for her wrongful conviction. There is no timetable for the court to rule after hearing arguments.
Brown was the first exonerated under the 2008 statute.
A Louisiana man was the second, in September 2011.
Harry Miller served five years for the aggravated robbery of a woman in Salt Lake City. He was released from prison in 2007, as stipulated to by the state, after medical and employment records proved he was in Louisiana recovering from a stroke at the time of the crime. Attorneys for the Salt Lake City-based Rocky Mountain Innocence Center sought to have his record expunged under the factual innocence statute.
Miller also has received $75,000 in financial restitution and is due another $50,000, according to Liz Fasse, managing attorney for the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center.
Ballard said at least two other factual innocence cases are pending in Utah.