Debra Brown will remain a free woman after the Utah Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that cleared her of murder.
Brown was convicted of the murder of her boss, Lael Brown, and spent 17 years in prison. In 2011, a court applied a new state law and found she was “factually innocent.” That decision was was based partly on new testimony and partly on evidence already heard in the original trial.
Utah’s Attorney General then appealed the post-conviction court’s decision. It argued that the court should have only based their decision on newly discovered evidence and that it also did not correctly establish factual innocence.
In a 4 to 1 decision, the Supreme Court justices disagreed with both of the state’s arguments. Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote the majority opinion, saying the court can base its decisions on both newly discovered evidence and previously available evidence. He also writes that the state did not properly challenge the post-conviction court’s factual findings, going as far as saying, “the State’s position on the issue is confusing.” Justice Thomas Lee was the only dissenter.
After the ruling was released Assistant Attorney General Christopher Ballard defended the state’s case. He says it was the Supreme Court Justices that didn’t understand.
“No, we didn’t mess up," Ballard says. "I think we certainly could have been more clear but I think as Justice Lee points out the majority misperceived our argument. So, certainly we could have been more clear, but the majority held that we made a concession that we really didn’t make.”
This is the first time in Utah someone has been proven factually innocent of a crime after conviction. Brown may now pursue compensation from the state for the time she spent in prison.