Debra Brown served 17 years for a murder she didn't commit.

Today, she answered questions, along with her family and legal team, at the law office of Snell & Wilmer in SLC as an innocent woman.

She was convicted in the murder of Lael Brown, who was shot three times at close range with a .22 in 1993. She had a key to Lael's house and an argument with him, but the investigation was sloppy.

Judge Michael D. DiReda of Utah Second District Court granted her release under Utah's Post-conviction Factual Innocense Statute last week. The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, a non-profit set up to correct these type of injustices, has been working with Brown to help make it happen.

Former SLmag writer Dan Nailen wrote a story on the organization and their work on Brown's case back in Oct. 2008. Click here for more on the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, read the story below.

Seeking Justice

Debra Brown is a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

To her children and grandchildren, she’s the loving, 50-year-old “Grandma Deb” who always sends a present on their birthdays. To Brown’s boss and coworkers, she’s a dedicated laborer who gets up at 2:30 every morning to make breakfast and work her shift. To the administration at Salt Lake Community College, she’s a full-time student, taking 21 credits per semester in fields like marketing and business math. To her former Bible study teacher, she’s a curious mind who became a lifelong friend.

To the state of Utah, though, Brown is a killer.

She is serving five years to life at the Utah State Prison for the aggravated murder of her friend and boss Lael Brown (no relation), who was shot three times at close range with a .22-caliber handgun on November 6, 1993, at his Logan home.

Her conviction was based primarily on circumstantial evidence. Debra was the only other person with keys to Lael’s home, and there were no signs of forced entry. Because she had been there often, she most likely knew where he kept his guns and ammunition, and his .22-caliber Colt Woodsman pistol was missing. And when investigators, in the months after the murder, found a series of allegedly forged checks made out to Debra, they believed they had found a motive. If Lael had discovered Debra was stealing from him and confronted her, they surmised, she just might have reacted by killing him.

That was the story the jury heard and used to convict Debra Brown. But the police never found the murder weapon. They never found any physical evidence linking Debra to Lael’s murder. The small traces of blood discovered near the home’s kitchen sink and a hand print found on the front door were never matched to Debra. There was no blood found on her clothes. She was “interviewed by investigators more than 20 times in the three months following the murder and consistently denied involvement,” according to court records. And she voluntarily took—and passed—a lie-detector test requested by the Logan Police Department.

Even a cursory look at Brown’s case reveals as many questions as facts. Was a fight with her boss enough to send the then-35-year-old mother of two into a murderous rage? Or were prosecutors so anxious to close a murder case in a small town that they put an innocent woman away, maybe for life?

That’s where the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center comes in, looking for answers. 

[caption id="attachment_19026" align="alignnone" width="331" caption="Katie Monroe joined the RMIC as executive director in 2006, after successfully fighting her mother’s wrongful murder conviction in Virginia for a decade."][/caption]

the freedom fighters

The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center was created by University of Utah law professor Lionel Frankel in 2000 as part of a national movement sparked by improved science, particularly DNA testing, that revealed flaws in the U.S. justice system. High-profile cases of innocent people locked up in Texas and Illinois, including death-row inmates, spurred the creation of dozens of innocence-related programs across the country.

The nonprofit RMIC, which covers Utah, Wyoming and Nevada, was a bare-bones organization for years, relying on volunteer lawyers from both the U law school and the private sector to examine questionable cases, interact with prisoners petitioning for help and try cases in court.

Still, even with no money and no staff, the group managed to exonerate Bruce Dallas Goodman in 2004. Goodman was convicted of raping and killing his girlfriend in the mid-’80s, but the RMIC uncovered evidence that, when tested for DNA, proved Goodman wasn’t the perpetrator.

“There’s never been a feeling in my law career like walking out of that prison with Bruce Dallas Goodman at my side,” says Jensie Anderson, U of U law professor and president of the board for the RMIC. Anderson has overseen the group’s expansion in the past couple of years, including hiring an executive director, Katie Monroe, and opening a 10-student clinic at the U law school.

The RMIC gets about 20 letters a month from prisoners proclaiming their innocence, Monroe says, but many can’t provide enough information about their cases—or any new, exonerating evidence—for the RMIC to expend its limited resources on them.

“There are a lot who have credible claims of innocence that we don’t think we can do anything about, and those are the hardest, obviously,” Monroe says. “It’s much easier to write a letter and say ‘Yes, we’re going to take your case. It might take us a decade, but we’re going to do it, we’re going to see what we can do to help you.’ It’s really hard to write back to people and say, ‘We have a really strong feeling you’re innocent, but we can’t do anything.’”

The law students working for the RMIC—a group that this year will include students from the U, BYU, UNLV and the University of Wyoming—spend an entire school year researching a single case the RMIC board has determined worth examining. Sometimes they hit a dead end. Sometimes they find a witness or long-lost piece of evidence that gives a case new life, and an innocent person new hope. Either way, the students learn investigative skills impossible to acquire through books or classroom lectures. And the work they put in on behalf of the RMIC—about 250 hours per student during a school year—is invaluable to the people who have made innocence work their life’s passion.

“The hope is that if we can actually win some of these cases, and we can exonerate people, then that is improving the field for everybody else,” Monroe says. “Suddenly courts are saying, ‘Hmm, maybe we do get it wrong.’ Prosecutors and police officers improve the way they handle these cases, and maybe defense attorneys, too.”

Jackie Hopkinson, a 25-year-old Salt Lake native and 2008 U law school grad, calls herself a “shy” person, but her work with the RMIC has led her to “talk to perfect strangers” and taught her how to find people, even if that means knocking on an alleged drug dealer’s door, unannounced, at 10 p.m., in a town she’s never been to before. The realities of the job market will dictate her career to some degree, she says, but Hopkinson believes she has found her calling with the RMIC.

“It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that sometimes prosecutors don’t do their job, police officers don’t do their job and defense attorneys don’t do their job,” Hopkinson says. “If I pass the bar, I’ll be able to be a co-counsel [on Debra Brown’s case]. That’s my goal. I believe so strongly about the case I’ve worked on.”

a glimmer of hope

Hopkinson has researched Brown’s case for a year, and the RMIC has been working on it since late 2001, when Brown’s former Bible study teacher sent a letter to the RMIC on her behalf.

“We took her case because we believed she was making a credible claim of innocence, and as we’ve researched it, there’s been nothing to make us change our minds,” says Anderson. “We’re committed to proving her innocence at this point.”

Whether that will ever be possible remains a question, but Brown says that just knowing Anderson, Monroe, Hopkinson and the rest of the RMIC believe her makes all the difference when living day to day in prison. Her next parole hearing isn’t scheduled until 2018, a full 25 years after she started serving time. Her first parole hearing, in 1998, was brief and unsuccessful, since someone claiming innocence clearly isn’t “taking responsibility” or “showing remorse.” The hope that the RMIC can help her is vital.

“I feel like, ‘Oh my God, someone is finally in my corner,’” Brown says of the RMIC, talking in an otherwise empty visitation room—full of tables, chairs and vending machines—adjacent to the yard where prisoners spend a couple hours a day outside.

“It just makes a world of difference. They actually sat down and listened to me. And despite everything that’s stacked against us, they still dig and dig, and when they hit a brick wall, they back up and regroup and bring on new team members and never close the door, when they could have so many times.”

Anderson admits that part of the equation when the RMIC takes a case is gut instinct, and talking with Brown, it is certainly hard to believe she could kill anyone.

On this day, Brown was able to sleep in because she had visitors coming to see her, and she put on makeup for the occasion—a rarity. Brown claims to be nervous talking to the media, but she became effusive once the discussion started. During our conversation, she grabbed for Anderson’s hand for reassurance on several occasions, but became more at ease and answered my questions eye-to-eye by the end of our interview. Tears came quickly when she described the help she’s getting from the RMIC, and laughter came just as fast when she cracked jokes about the health care in prison being too good to leave behind. One moment she seemed to be the most hopeful, optimistic person you can imagine, discussing being released. But melancholy sentiments followed immediately after, when she contemplated how hard it will be to get a job.

In prison, she works full time in the kitchen, cooking breakfast for 1,500 inmates every day for 70 cents an hour, which she calls “good money!” compared to some. She spends her earnings on her college tuition, renting a TV, and to buy yarn to knit gifts for her family.

In the 15 years Brown’s been incarcerated, she’s missed the birth of her son’s five children, and this summer missed the birth of her daughter’s first child. Her daughter was 11 when Brown was convicted. She’s suffered through both breast cancer and cervical cancer. And yet she still feels that she is far better off than most of the inmates she shares her day-to-day life with, thanks to the RMIC’s involvement in her case.

“Seeing that light out the window makes a world of difference in my day,” Brown says. “My whole outlook is completely different, and I know the difference, because I’m housed with girls who don’t have [the RMIC] in their corner. Their whole countenance is pretty hateful. I’m not downing on them, but they have nothing. They have no hope. It’s a done deal.

“Even if it’s only a little handful of people who believe in you, it makes all the difference.” 

best case scenario

Debra Brown can picture her life outside prison if the RMIC is successful in exonerating her. She’ll have a college degree by then, and enough experience from her time in the prison’s culinary arts program to maybe land a job in a bakery that will also allow some time for fishing, and even more time to catch up with her grandkids.

She imagines she’ll move back to Logan, and can see herself riding around town on a bicycle, a basket on the front carrying a chihuahua and a basket on back for groceries. She’s already sent a picture of the bike to her brother, so it will be waiting for her the day she walks out prison. 

If that sounds too idyllic, well, it probably is. People who come out of a prison environment, even if they are innocent, face challenges that “civilians” can only dream of, whether it’s trying to explain where they’ve been for the past 10 or 20 years to a prospective employer, or reestablishing the personal relationships with family and friends that once were so easy, so natural.

Beverly Monroe, Katie Monroe’s mother, knows this all too well. She served about a dozen years in a Virginia prison on a murder charge after her longtime boyfriend committed suicide. An overzealous cop coerced a false confession from Beverly through an intense eight-hour interrogation—only the last 20 minutes were taped—and Katie ended up spending the first decade of her law career working to free her mother.

When Beverly entered prison, she was a middle-aged, financially well-off executive with Phillip Morris and a socially connected member of her largely conservative, Republican community. When she was exonerated, she found the job market tough for a 65-year-old, let alone a 65-year-old with a 12-year gap on her resumé. She ended up working the front desk at a health club for $7 an hour. At the same time, some old friends stopped taking her phone calls, and once-simple tasks like getting a driver’s license or registering to vote became exercises in patience, as she had to tell her story over and over to get the proper paperwork. Basically, she’s had to completely reestablish her identity. But she will never be the same.

“There is no such thing as getting your career back,” Beverly Monroe says. “There is no such thing as getting your normal life back.

“It’s so traumatic. You have a feeling of not belonging. You don’t belong to this world anymore. I never had that sense of discomfort or angst before. I went from being probably the most peaceful, confident, together person to having some trauma. And you’re exhausted mentally and emotionally, psychologically, financially and every other way.”

Even though she’s lost virtually everything she had before wrongfully landing in prison—her retirement savings, her health insurance, her house—Beverly Monroe still considers herself lucky compared to most innocent people who land in jail. She had a supportive family and friends to help her through, and her own education that gave her the skills to navigate life after prison. Many in her position don’t have it so good, she says, or don’t have the innate confidence to know they can get their lives back.

Debra Brown sounds remarkably similar to Beverly Monroe at times. She worries about what kind of job she’ll really be able to get after spending at least 15 years behind bars. But she considers herself lucky to have a supportive family, and the folks at the RMIC. With them on her side, Brown truly feels she’ll be free one day.

“Some people say, ‘You’re living in a Mr. Rogers world,’” Brown says. “But you know what? It gets me up every day. I have a smile on my face. I sleep well at night. What harm is there in believing it’s going to happen?”