DRAPER, Utah – A Utah woman freed from prison after 17 years began celebrating a belated Mother's Day with her family Monday now that she has been declared "factually innocent" in a 1993 murder.
Debra Brown is the first inmate exonerated under a 2008 Utah law allowing judges to reconsider convictions based on new factual — not scientific — evidence.
Brown's exit from the Utah State Prison touched off an emotional reunion in the pouring rain.
About three dozen family members and friends waited outside the prison gates, huddled under umbrellas, and clutching colorful balloons, until Brown was released shortly after 2:30 p.m.
Brown, 53, first hugged her youngest son, Ryan, and released the bouquet of yellow balloons into the air.
Though she couldn't pedal a powder-blue bicycle out of prison as she dreamed, the coaster was waiting there in the parking lot, a stuffed Chihuahua toy in the plastic white basket.
"Gosh," Brown said upon being surrounded by media after meeting with family. "I don't think there's a word for it. Overwhelmed. I'm so blessed, so lucky."
As for what she looked forward to doing first, Brown said, "Just being with them."
One of the biggest hugs was for brother Dave Scott, who made sure the bike was clean and ready to go.
"She found a picture of that bike, tore it out of the magazine, and sent it to me with the price tagged circled and the note, 'That will never happen,' " Scott said.
"I knew I had to go find that bike. It's been found and been purchased. I know she won't ride it today, but she'll get to look at it and honk that horn, and that's worth it."
Brown was sentenced to life in the death of Lael Brown, 75. The two are not related.
Prosecutors are appealing the judge's decision to overturn the conviction but were not fighting to keep her in prison during that process.
Assistant Utah Attorney General Scott Reed said he wants another judge to review the facts against Debra Brown because there is "too much contradictory and competing" information in the case.
Second District Court Judge Michael DiReda last week ruled that Debra Brown's alibi shows she was elsewhere when the victim was shot to death.
Reed said because the case is the first of its kind in Utah, "We want to be fairly certain of the process as it gets applied on other cases down the road."
But he didn't believe it appropriate to stay the release order further.
"It seems rather inhumane to continue to incarcerate her when the burden is now on the state to establish some error in the process," Reed said. "The presumption is she is innocent of the crime and should be freed. It seems cruel, frankly, to try to keep her there for any longer."
Members of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, which worked as co-counsel the last nine years to free Brown, expressed disappointment Monday upon hearing the state intends to appeal.
"The system failed Deb and, by doing so, sent an innocent person to prison for 17 years," spokeswoman Marla Kennedy said in a press release. "An appeal is a continuation of the injustice already committed on Ms. Brown, her family, and the citizens of Utah."
For his part, Reed said the victim's two sons remain "bewildered" at the latest ruling.
"This has always been a tragic family event that's never really had closure," Reed said Monday. "On one end, they couldn't imagine Debra Brown would have killed Lael Brown because of the close association and what was supposed to be a fairly strong and positive business relationship.
"But on the other hand, if she's not the killer and legally at least today she isn't, then who is? It starts to look like the O.J. (Simpson) case. I don't know that I can tell the family that there will be any renewed investigation into how Lael Brown was killed."
The court, in addition to expunging Brown's criminal record, on Monday ordered her to receive financial restitution provided by the 2008 law.
She is to receive about $570,000 — with an initial payment of about $114,000. Payment is stayed, however, if the state appeals the judge's ruling overturning the conviction.
The Utah Attorney General's Office has filed a notice of intent to appeal but has 30 days to file the actual notice of appeal.
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