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Factual innocence

Published July 14, 2013 4:21 pm

High court correct in Brown case
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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."

That's how we opened The Salt Lake Tribune editorial of May 11, 2011, when Brown was found by a trial judge to be factually innocent of the murder she had been convicted of committing nearly two decades before.

Today we reiterate what we said then, in the wake of Friday's Utah Supreme Court ruling that upheld that decision and made it clear, once and for all, that Brown is, and by right ought to be, a free woman.

Utah's Legislature is to be commended for passing a law in 2008 that allowed those convicted of serious crimes to have those verdicts reviewed, not for technical or procedural reasons, but when there is reason to believe that a person who had been convicted was not just innocent by law, but in fact.

In Brown's case, it was a matter of witnesses who could place the victim of that murder, Lael Brown, as alive at a time when, according to the prosecution's version of events, he must have been dead.

Those witnesses did not testify in the original trial but, 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda ruled two years ago, their evidence was too strong to be ignored.

Sadly, then-Attorney General Mark Shurtleff decided to appeal DiReda's ruling to the Utah Supreme Court. His office argued that the testimony of witnesses who could have been called to give evidence in the original trial, but weren't, wasn't really new information, and that, by allowing such evidence to enter the case at a later date, DeReda was setting too low a standard for overturning a guilty verdict.

The Supreme Court's 4-1 ruling, though, sets a proper standard for any future appeals based on the factual innocence statute.

What's important is not the age or history of evidence. What's important is that the law has provided a process by which the facts of a case, not just the procedural hoops, really matter. The facts, and the law, the high court ruled Friday, deserve to be respected.

More than process. More than habit. And certainly more than the win-loss record of the state's prosecutors.




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