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In a groundbreaking ruling, 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda on Monday exonerated a 53-year-old Logan woman in the 1993 fatal shooting of her friend and employer a crime for which she has served nearly 17 years behind bars.
But Debra Brown isn't quite a free woman.
DiReda's ruling, the first-ever case in Utah to be heard under a 2008 state statute that allows convictions to be challenged based on new facts rather than new DNA evidence, is on hold for another five days while prosecutors decide whether to appeal.
But Ryan Buttars, who was 17 when his mother was arrested in September 1994, said he has been waiting half his life for Monday's decision and that another five days won't matter.
"It's surreal," Buttars said during a phone interview from Rigby, Idaho. "I feel like I'm floating. I don't feel like I'm in the world right now."
If the state declines to appeal, the judge's order setting Brown free will go into effect Monday at 2:30 p.m.
"We do not believe she will stay in prison longer than Monday at 2:31," said defense attorney Alan Sullivan.
DiReda found Brown was "factually innocent" based on hearings earlier this year. In his ruling, DiReda noted that the state argued 75-year-old Lael Brown, who wasn't related to her, was murdered on Saturday, Nov. 6, 1993, about 7 a.m. a time for which Debra Brown apparently had no alibi.
The judge, however, found by "clear and convincing evidence" that Lael Brown was alive later that afternoon. That means Debra Brown "could not have killed Lael on Saturday morning, as the state argued at trial," DiReda said.
The judge further found that Debra Brown "could not have killed Lael Brown at any other time."
Sullivan summed up the judge's ruling by saying DiReda had found Debra Brown was "factually innocent" of the crime, as opposed to not guilty.
Debra Brown's attorneys and officials of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center said the woman was "overwhelmed " when they broke the news to her at Utah State Prison on Monday afternoon.
"She was emotionally overwhelmed and very grateful for this ruling," Sullivan said. "Deb Brown is a remarkable person in that she is extremely self-possessed, and she has been a comfort to all of us during this process."
Utah Assistant Attorney General Scott Reed said after Monday's ruling that his office is carefully considering its next move.
"This case is pretty significant," Reed said. "It's going to become the template for all the future cases that come down the pike."
An unsuccessful appeal by the state would mean Brown would be set free, while a successful appeal would keep her in prison. A new trial isn't an option, according to attorneys.
Sullivan said that, in the event of an appeal, he will attempt to secure Brown's release in the interim.
Rocky Mountain Innocence Center Director Kathryn Monroe told The Salt Lake Tribune: "My sincere hope is the state will accept the ruling and not push for more litigation in this case. I think, when a court corrects a miscarriage of justice, that it's not important just for the person and their family but for all of us. I think it would be a miscarriage of justice to tie this up in litigation for years."
The facts of the case against Debra Brown have been under scrutiny for nearly a decade by the innocence center.
Lael Brown owned rental units around the valley, and Debra Brown cleaned them and performed maintenance work. The two became close friends, family members said. They met regularly for coffee, and Lael Brown helped the single mother of three children with her bills. He also gave her a key to his home.
Logan police zeroed in on Debra Brown as a suspect, in part, because there were no signs of forced entry into the victim's home. Also, Lael Brown had caught Brown forging about $3,600 of his checks for herself.
Prosecutors asserted Debra Brown killed the man and stole his wallet to cover up her fraudulant activity. A jury convicted her of aggravated murder in 1995, and she was sentenced to prison for up to life.
Logan Assistant Police Chief Jeff Curtis said his department was "surprised" by the ruling and said it stands by its investigation in the case.
Buttars, Debra Brown's son who is now 35, said: "We always knew that she didn't do it."
Buttars recalled his mother spending time with her children at a city league basketball game at Sky View High School in Smithfield the morning after the murder was believed to have been committed.
"There's no way she would have been able to do something like that and then come home and be her normal self," he said.
Monday's ruling brought a rush of emotions to others who continued to stand behind Debra Brown.
"I had to pinch myself to make sure I was hearing everything [her attorneys] were saying," said Dave Scott, Debra Brown's brother. "It's almost unbelievable. We've waited a long time for this, as a family."
When Buttars heard the news Monday, he said he broke down in tears while at work. As he drove through town on his way home, he thought of his mother.
"Everything I passed, I thought, 'My mom's going to be able to do this,' " Buttars said. "She's going to be able to go to the grocery store, go through the drive-through to get something to eat."
Buttars and his siblings grew up without their mother.
"When it first happened, it was really devastating," Buttars said. "When we finally allowed ourselves to become numb, we just accepted it."
The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center took up the case in 2003.
"It kind of renewed some hope," Buttars said. "That was a blessing and a curse, but we just thrived on that hope."
On Monday, Buttars thanked God, the innocence center and the judge.
"He made a decision that a great man would make," Buttars said of DiReda.
The ruling came as a shock to Lael Brown's family.
Jennifer Nielsen remembers driving past her grandfather's home on the morning a neighbor would later report hearing gunshots. She wanted to borrow a drill, but she stopped when she saw Debra Brown's truck in front of the house because she didn't want to disturb them.
"About an hour passed, and we went by and her truck was still there," she said Monday. "In my mind, I always thought she was there."
For Nielsen, Monday's ruling is bothersome on several levels.
"If it wasn't her, I would like to know who it was," she said. "Who would want to kill him, especially in his sleep and the way it was done? It always made me wonder what type of person would do that."
Until Monday, Nielsen said she thought she knew.
"You think you have [resolution], and then you find out later that maybe you don't," she said. "If she was innocent all this long, it was the loss of not only his life, but hers."
Scott, Debra Brown's brother, said he bought a blue bicycle for his sister two years ago, after she told him she had dreamed of one.
He said he will believe in his sister's freedom only when he sees her riding that bike.
Reporter Sheena McFarland contributed to this report.
Debra Brown case a time line
Nov. 7, 1993 • Debra Brown finds the body of Lael Brown, 75, as he lay dead, shot three times, in his Cache County home.
Sept. 12, 1994 • Prosecutors charge Debra Brown with one count of aggravated murder.
Oct. 18, 1995 • A jury convicts Brown on the murder charge. During the trial, prosecutors pointed to the woman's lack of a corroborated alibi for the time Lael Brown was believed to have been killed and the fact that Debra Brown had been caught forging about $3,600 of the victim's checks for herself.
Dec. 11, 1995 • Brown is sentenced to life in prison.
Oct. 24, 1997 • The Utah Supreme Court affirms Brown's murder conviction.
March 4, 2009 • The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center files a petition for post-conviction relief under a new factual-innocence statute.
Jan. 17, 2011 • Brown becomes the first person to receive a hearing under the 2008 factual statute.
May 2, 2011 • Second District Judge Michael DiReda finds Brown innocent as opposed to not guilty in the slaying of Lael Brown.