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Hundreds of convictions have been overturned during the past two decades because of DNA evidence, but Debra Brown walked out of the Utah State Prison on Monday without the help of that "magic bullet."
Legal experts say the Cache County woman could be the face of the future.
"What's important about this case is it shows people can be convicted wrongfully and then vindicated through ways other than science," University of Utah law professor Daniel Medwed said.
A judge last week found the 53-year-old Brown factually innocent of the 1993 murder of her friend and employer based on new facts presented during hearings earlier this year. Brown's case was the first to be heard under a 2008 Utah law that allows convictions to be challenged even when new DNA evidence does not exist.
But in a time when DNA evidence is routinely used by prosecutors, this most obvious means of exoneration is likely to become more limited, experts said.
"Most of the cases that are being overturned because of DNA are older cases," Medwed said. "I think statistically we're reaching sort of a tipping point and we haven't seen it yet but I think that in the next decade or so there will be a shift."
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project in Washington, D.C., gets about 600 new requests per year, and "very few" are DNA cases, said Shawn Armbrust, the project's executive director.
"[Non-DNA cases] have always been a huge majority of the cases," she said. "Even now, people watch CSI, and they expect that DNA is used to prosecute more cases than it is."
Experts estimate as little as 10 percent of criminal cases have DNA evidence available. Even when biological evidence is available, it can be lost or become degraded over time.
Mark Godsey, executive director of the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, said DNA cases aren't going to go away completely. New technology will always make DNA evidence relevant. Nevertheless, Godsey agrees there could come a time when non-DNA cases will make up the bulk of exonerations.
But for innocence projects already relying almost exclusively on pro-bono hours and law students, fighting for a non-DNA exoneration can consume precious resources.
Godsey himself has been litigating a rape case for seven years, after finding a likely suspect someone who fits the description and has been known to make the same "distinct, idiosyncratic" comments the victim told police her assailant made. Ohio Innocence Project attorneys have tracked down the man's high school friends, old roommates and co-workers at a pizza place to put together an "extremely compelling" case, Godsey said.
"It is so hard to win a non-DNA case," he said. "When you actually win one, it's got to be pretty damn convincing."
In Brown's case, a judge found her factually innocent because witnesses testified to seeing the murder victim alive after the time prosecutors, at trial, claimed Brown committed the murder. It was the only time for which Brown did not have a corroborated alibi.
Medwed, who sits on the board of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center in Salt Lake City, said Brown's case provides a blueprint for future factual innocence claims and momentum for innocence projects nationwide.
"Those of us involved in this work see this is a pivotal moment in history to implement some key reforms to facilitate the exoneration of innocent people through non-DNA cases," he said.