Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff explaining his decision to appeal Debra Brown's exoneration for a 1993 murder in Logan said Thursday he does not want the case to set a "fatally flawed" legal precedent.
"If we do not [appeal], we fear there will be a floodgate opened that every judge out there will become another Monday morning quarterback, giving another bite of the apple to everybody who's been convicted of a crime," Shurtleff said at a news conference.
But Brown's legal team, who also had a news conference Thursday, said the AG's decision to appeal amounts to "a disappointing flip-flop," "a lack of leadership" and "a tragic case of sour grapes."
"This is not something that will open the floodgates," said Jensie Anderson, board president for the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center (RMIC), which worked to free Brown.
RMIC members stressed that the exoneration process is not an easy one.
Said director Katie Monroe: "We receive more than 200 requests for assistance every year. Of those, we end up investigating 10, maybe 12, over the course of many years. Ultimately we may file two or three of those cases in court."
Of the 10 innocence petitions currently filed under a 2008 factual innocence statute, only Brown's case has reached the litigation stage. The statute allows an inmate who finds fresh evidence to seek an exoneration hearing, even when no new DNA evidence exists.
Brown, 53, served nearly 17 years behind bars before being released from prison two weeks ago by 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda, who found her factually innocent of the November 1993 shooting death of her friend and employer, Lael Brown, who is of no relation.
Prior to Brown's May 9 release, the AG's Office filed an intent to appeal DiReda's decision. But later that day, Shurtleff made an informal announcement on Twitter, saying they would not appeal.
Shurtleff who is battling cancer and was in a hospital undergoing chemotherapy at the time now says he got caught up in the emotions of the ruling.
"There was a lot of sentiment, a lot of feeling. A lot of people thought maybe enough was enough," he said. "I was one of those."
On Thursday, surrounded by supportive county attorneys from across the state, Shurtleff said, "When it comes to proving guilt or innocence, you have to lay the emotions aside. You cannot base it on how you're feeling in your heart or your gut. It's based on facts and law."
Daniel Medwed, University of Utah law professor and RMIC board member, said the AG's reversal demonstrates "pettiness" and a lack of courage.
Medwed noted that RMIC had worked with the AG's Office to fashion a balanced statute. He said prosecutors are now refusing to support the law because they are sore losers.
Alan Sullivan, one of Brown's attorneys, added that DiReda who found the woman could not have committed the murder followed the rules and considered all the evidence presented during seven days of testimony earlier this year. Sullivan said his team proved that the circumstantial case against Brown was groundless, and that the police investigation was sloppy and unreliable.
RMIC officials insist the Brown decision will not set precedent for future cases because it is a district court ruling based on very specific facts.
But Assistant Attorney General Laura Dupaix said more petitions are expected because DiReda "didn't apply a high enough standard."
"Quite frankly, if it's this easy to get a conviction overturned this many years later, I think other inmates will feel hopeful," she said.
Shurtleff said no decision has been made regarding whether Brown should return to prison if the appeal is successful.
"That's not something I personally want," he said. "Could it happen? Yes."
At Debra Brown's 1995 trial, prosecutors claimed Lael Brown was killed at his home at 7 a.m. on Nov. 7, 1993, the only time when Debra Brown had no corroborated alibi. But this year, RMIC attorneys presented witnesses including Delwin Hall who said they saw 75-year-old Lael Brown alive after he had supposedly been killed.
Prosecutors claim Hall's testimony is not "new" because he was on the defense's witness list, even though he was never called to testify.
Brown's team says the evidence is new because the jury and defense attorney never saw the report Hall made to police.
Deputy Cache County Attorney Don Linton, one of two prosecutors who tried Brown in 1995, said he believes Hall was not called because he was "a bad witness."
But Sullivan said, "There is no indication in the file that [Hall] was ever interviewed by anyone."
Despite news of the appeal, Debra Brown, mother of three children and seven times a grandmother, was reported to be optimistic and positive.
"She believes in the system of justice to do justice," said Sullivan. "To her, temporary setbacks are really nothing new."
Watch the news conference that Debra Brown and her family gave on May 9 after she was released from prison.