In a four to one ruling, the Utah Supreme Court Friday upheld a lower court's decision to free Debra Brown. The Logan woman had been arrested for the murder of her part-time employer Lael Brown in 1993 and sentenced to prison in 1995.
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote that the Utah Supreme Court upholds the post-conviction decision of 2nd District Court Judge Michael DiReda that found Brown factually innocent.
"We hold that a post-conviction determination of factual innocence can be based on both newly discovered evidence and previously available evidence," Judge Durrant wrote. "Further, because the State did not properly challenge the post-conviction court’s factual findings, we affirm the post-conviction court’s ultimate determination that Ms. Brown is factually innocent."
Brown became the first convict to be found factually innocent of a crime under a statute that allows for such a finding without DNA evidence.
Brown's aunt, Judy Bodrero, couldn't be happier about Friday's decision.
"We've all known that and it's finally time that the truth come out," a tearful Bodrero said Friday. "Nobody has no idea about what her and her family (have) been going through for years, for years waiting for this to happen."
In 2009 Brown appealed the 1995 conviction based on Utah's Post Conviction Remedies Act. Based on the information Brown presented at her factual innocence hearing, Judge DiReda determined that Brown established her factual innocence by clear and convincing evidence. The court then vacated her 1995 murder conviction and the State subsequently appealed.
Brown was released in 2011 but the Utah Attorney General's Office appealed the decision soon after. In September 2012 both sides made arguments before the Utah Supreme Court to appeal the district court decision. Brown's attorney, Allen Sullivan, claimed that Brown was arrested and convicted based on a sloppy police investigation.
In the dissenting opinion Friday, Judge Thomas Rex Lee felt the lower court failed to properly consider the strength of Brown's alibi.
"I find clear error in the district court’s determination that Ms. Brown established her factual innocence by 'clear and convincing' proof of an alibi," Judge Lee wrote. "As far as alibis go, this is the weakest I have heard of. Ms. Brown’s whereabouts are established only by her own self-interested testimony and by that of her son and boyfriend."
Judge Lee contends that Brown did not do enough to sufficiently clear her name and establish her alibi away from the crime scene.