SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Debra Brown had a motive and the opportunity to kill a longtime employer and shouldn’t have been let out of a Utah prison, a state lawyer argued Tuesday before the Utah Supreme Court.
Brown, now 55, was released from Utah State Prison in May 2011 after 17 years in prison for a murder she always maintained she didn’t commit.
She was the first inmate freed under a 2008 Utah law that allows convictions to be overturned based on factual evidence or testimony rather than DNA proof.
Brown could collect $570,000 in restitution for a wrongful conviction if the Utah Supreme Court upholds her exoneration. The court heard less than an hour’s worth of arguments Tuesday and is expected to take months to issue a decision.
Assistant Attorney General Christopher Ballard said that Brown’s release came on the dubious testimony of a single, post-trial witness who claimed the murder victim was still alive in a restaurant Nov. 6, 1993, during hours when Brown had an alibi and couldn’t have been the killer.
Ballard said a “mountain of evidence” contradicted the testimony of Delwin Hall.
Brown’s lawyer told reporters that Hall’s testimony is forcing the state to change its timeline of the killing of 75-year-old Logan landlord Lael Brown.
The state, however, is sticking to its original theory.
The Browns are unrelated. Debra Brown was a handywoman for the landlord and acknowledged visiting him the day he is believed to have died, also she had keys to his home and had been forging checks in his name, Ballard said.
Lael Brown died at in his bed with three gunshot wounds to the head. According to Ballard, he wasn’t discovered until the day after. The state believes he was killed by Debra Brown.
“She murdered him because he found out she was forging his checks and stealing, and he was going to report her,” Ballard said Tuesday.
Brown’s attorney, Alan Sullivan, said a second witness claims to have seen Lael Brown alive in a restaurant late on a Saturday during hours that provided Debra Brown with her alibi.
Ballard, however, said a judge rejected the second witness’ testimony because he was a friend of Debra Brown’s and had a prior conviction for witness tampering.
Debra Brown’s exoneration rested on the testimony of Delwin Hall, who couldn’t recall during the post-trial hearing what hour he saw Lael Brown alive – he relied on an old police statement that was never used at the original trial, Ballard said.
Hall was on a defense’s witness list for the original trial but was not called to testify. The state contends that his testimony isn’t new evidence that can be used for exoneration.
Debra Brown said she was looking forward to having her conviction permanently expunged.
“It’s hard to live life with a murder conviction on your record,” she said.