In a long-awaited decision announced Friday morning, the Utah Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that exonerated former Logan resident Debra Brown of aggravated murder.
After an 11-year process to free Brown of what her lawyers say was a legal injustice, the case has come to a close.
Brown's legal team says the 4 to 1 decision by the high court reaffirms their commitment to reversing wrongful convictions.
Jensie Anderson, Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Utah S. J. Quinney College of Law and former president of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, said she delivered the news to Brown Friday morning.
"I spoke with Deb first thing as soon as we got the decision, and the first thing I said to her is, 'you're innocent,'" said Anderson. "And she said, 'oh, I knew that.' And then she started to laugh. And I've never heard her laugh with such joy and relief. It was really music to my ears. ... I think today she was finally able to just let it all go."
Brown spent 17 years in the Utah State Prison after being convicted in the 1993 killing of her employer and friend Lael Brown, no relation.
The victim was shot dead in his bed and was discovered by Brown the morning of Nov. 7, 1993. She called police to report the death and then became a primary suspect in the case after investigators learned she had taken money from the man on multiple occasions.
Brown is the first person in the state to be exonerated of a previous conviction under a new Utah law that allows newly discovered evidence to be submitted in a post-conviction remedy case.
Chief Justice Matthew Durant wrote in the opinion, "we hold that a post-conviction determination of factual innocence can be based on both newly discovered evidence and previously available evidence."
A key piece of evidence uncovered in Brown's innocence hearings of 2011, showed that a witness saw Lael Brown alive in the hours after he was reportedly murdered.
In the original 1995 trial, jurors were told Lael Brown died early in the morning of Saturday Nov. 6, 1993. But the newly-discovered witnesses said he saw Lael Brown at Angie's restaurant in Logan that same day later in the afternoon.
Second District Judge Michael DiReda said the new information completely changed the facts of the case, and cleared Brown of the crime because she had an established alibi at the time she was originally accused of killing the man.
"(The) petitioner could not have killed Lael Saturday morning," wrote DiReda. "The significance of the evidence provided by Hall cannot be overstated. Unlike the circumstantial evidence presented by the state at trial that Lael was dead sometime Saturday morning, Hall's testimony and statement to police are direct evidence that Lael was alive Saturday afternoon."
Anderson says Brown is living in Idaho with her dog and spending time fishing, gardening and watching sunsets.
"She's enjoying her freedom and I think this will only allow her to do it more," she said.