The Utah Attorney General's Office submitted an appeal to the Utah Supreme Court Tuesday, arguing to reverse the exoneration of Debra Brown, who was freed last year after spending 17 years in prison for a 1993 murder in Logan.
"She has not met the burden to prove factual innocence," Assistant Attorney General Christopher Ballard told The Tribune after filing the appeal. "It is not enough for her to just raise questions about her conviction. She has to show that she did not do it. And she has to show that by clear and convincing evidence."
The A.G.'s Office claims that is something Brown and her attorneys did not do last year before 2nd District Court Judge Michael DiReda, who freed the woman last May.
The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center worked on the case for nearly a decade before bringing it to DiReda, who relied on a 2008 statute that allows an inmate to seek a hearing for non-DNA-related claims of innocence.
Prosecutors at Brown's 1995 trial claimed she shot and killed her friend and employer, Lael Brown, 75, of no relation, at his home at about 7 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 6, 1993.
Ballard said that at trial the state proved Debra Brown was the only person who had the motive, access and opportunity to kill Lael Brown.
Prosecutors argued that Debra Brown killed Lael Brown because she had forged $3,600 of his checks. She denied the forgeries at the time, but admitted to them last year.
"By admitting that [she did forge the checks], she has made the state's evidence about motive even stronger," Ballard said.
The A.G.'s Office said Debra Brown's access remains undisputed because it is a fact that she had a key to her employer's home.
At trial, Debra Brown had no alibi for the time of the slaying.
But during the hearing before DiReda, Brown's defense attorneys called two witnesses who testified seeing Lael Brown alive after the time he was supposedly murdered.
One of those witnesses, Delwin Hall who was on the defense witness list but was never called to testify at trial told DiReda he saw Lael Brown at Angie's restaurant in Logan on Saturday afternoon.
But Ballard said Tuesday that Hall could be mistaken about the time, noting that Lael Brown was not seen by anyone all day Saturday.
He was not seen at Angie's restaurant, where he usually stopped for coffee in the morning, he did not finish plumbing repairs started the day before at a tenant's residence, he failed to answer phone calls from his ex-wife and granddaughter, a neighbor never saw him outside although his truck was in the driveway and none of the waitresses at the restaurant remembered seeing him.
"A reasonable juror who looks at all the evidence both the trial evidence and all of the evidence that [Debra Brown] presented [to DiReda] could still find that [Debra Brown] is guilty beyond reasonable doubt," Ballard argued. "Even if a juror heard Delwin Hall's testimony and believed him, she still hasn't proven that she didn't kill him at some other time. At the very best she has only raised questions about her guilt."
The evidence presented in support of factual innocence has to "completely change the evidentiary picture," Ballard said.
The A.G.'s Office also argues that Hall's testimony, which DiReda apparently relied on to make his decision, was not new evidence as required by the 2008 statute because it was available at the time of the trial.
Ballard said the factual innocence statute was passed to make sure that if someone is truly innocent, he or she can be released.
"No one wants to keep a truly innocent person in prison," he said. "But we don't believe the Legislature had this case in mind when it passed this statute. It was not thinking someone who just merely raised some new questions about her conviction should be able to get relief."
If the high court rules in favor of the state, Brown's conviction would be reinstated and the Board of Pardons and Parole would decide her fate.
The A.G.'s Office has said the appeal is meant to prevent establishment of a flawed legal precedent and that the state does not want Debra Brown returned to prison.