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No technicality

Published May 11, 2011 1:01 am

Innocence law a hope for justice
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The people of Utah have no use for a criminal justice system that cannot admit when it has made a mistake.

And the evidence is strong that our system made a very serious error indeed in locking Debra Brown away from her three children for 17 years for a crime that, according to the only neutral official to have recently examined the evidence, she did not commit.

It speaks well of our state that the Legislature has passed, and a judge has invoked, a law that recognizes that police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and juries are human and capable of error. The 2008 law allows those convicted of serious crimes to seek reversal of their convictions, based not on much-decried "legal technicalities" such as jury instructions, incompetent counsel or Miranda warnings, but actual hard evidence that they really did not commit the crime.

What now appears to have been no more than circumstantial evidence proved enough for a jury to convict Debra Brown of murdering her friend, former employer (but no relation), Lael Brown, in Logan in 1993.

After reviewing the evidence, including new-found testimony by witnesses who saw Lael Brown alive when prosecutors originally alleged he must have been dead, 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda ordered Debra Brown released. She walked out of the Utah State Prison Monday afternoon.

Innocence is no technicality.

The statute does not allow prisoners to demand a new trial based on a rehash of old information or the hiring of a more silver-tongued attorney. It demands the introduction of real evidence that was not known at the time of trial.

To win their freedom, those who invoke this law must convince a judge that they are "factually innocent." That is a heavy burden for a defendant to bear. It is more imposing than the original trial, when the presumption of innocence supposedly cloaks the defendant, and prosecutors must prove their case "beyond reasonable doubt."

It is sad, but not surprising, that the Logan Police Department, author of this wrongful conviction, meekly says only that it stands by its original investigation, and that Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff only tweets his admission that the ruling is not worth appealing, hoping not to be associated with this sad case at all.

Those who supposedly stand for law and order in Utah are right to shrink from the spotlight today. But Brown's supporters, including her three now-grown children, her attorneys, and the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, may rightly celebrate this reversal of fortune.




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