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Woman awaits freedom after 17 years behind bars

Last week, Debra Brown became the first inmate exonerated under a 2008 Utah law that allows convictions to be reconsidered based on new factual — not scientific — evidence.
Debra Brown, Josh Whitney, Alana Williams, Ryan Buttars
This undated image provided by Ryan Buttars shows Debra Brown posing with her children, from left, Josh Whitney, Alana Williams and Ryan Buttars. Brown is scheduled to be released Monday May 9, 2011 from the Utah State Prison after becoming the first inmate exonerated under a 2008 Utah law that allows convictions to be reconsidered based on new factual — not scientific — evidence. Brown received a life sentence in 1995. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In her dream, Debra Brown pedals out of a Utah prison on a powder blue bicycle, riding past razor wire that for the last 17 years has kept her from proms and graduations and the birth of seven grandchildren.

On Monday that dream figures to become a reality — even though the bike will be awaiting the 53-year-old outside the walls of Utah State Prison, where family members plan a parking lot reunion.

"We're going to celebrate a late Mother's Day, but it will be the best Mother's Day present we could ask for," said daughter Alana Williams, who was 11 when Debra Brown was arrested in Logan, about 80 miles north of Salt Lake City, 10 months after the November 1993 shooting death of her longtime friend and employer, Lael Brown. The two were not related.

"It definitely takes you back to your childhood. I'm sure it will be a homecoming like none other," Williams said.

Last week, Brown became the first inmate exonerated under a 2008 Utah law that allows convictions to be reconsidered based on new factual — not scientific — evidence. More than 250 people since 1989 have been exonerated nationwide thanks to DNA testing.

In Brown's case, a judge finally agreed with what she had been saying all along — that her alibi put her elsewhere when the crime occurred, even though she admitted forging checks belonging to the victim.

Attorneys for the Salt Lake City-based Rocky Mountain Innocence Center took up the case nine years ago. They're hopeful 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda officially signs Brown's release order at 2:30 p.m. Monday, finally setting her free.

Culture shock
There's no question there will be culture shock when Brown starts life anew.

There were no smartphones or Google when she was sentenced. Her children were still school kids. And forget about e-books or Kindles.

"She's been locked up so long, she'll be amazed and confused and have a hard time adjusting," Williams said.

David Scott, Brown's brother, said his sister was a vivacious fair-haired woman with a sense of determination when she was locked up for life in 1995, even as she struggled to raise three children alone.

Years behind bars hardened her features, Scott said. But he called her a survivor in more ways than one, as she dealt with cancer while in prison, missed the funerals of her father and grandparents, and the weddings of her children, who grew up without her.

Son Ryan Buttars was 17 and in high school when his mom was arrested. He's now 35 and married with five children.

"It was very dramatic because you deal with the things you deal with in high school anyway, then to have that on top of it," Buttars said. "We all just kind of dealt with it in our own way. I was able to graduate and keep going on with life the best I could."

'Factually innocent'
While the judge's ruling last week declared Brown "factually innocent," exonerating her under state law, family members are still collectively holding their breath.

"It's kind of surreal right now because this is something we've basically been dreaming about for the last 17 years," Buttars said. "I'm just floating."

Brown declined a prison interview, but Katie Monroe, director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, said her client has been a jumble of emotions since the ruling.

She still can't be released until Monday, but Monroe said Brown was actually grateful for the extra days behind bars "so she could plant the annual prison vegetable garden" she has tended in the prison's women's unit.

Scott, an Idaho farmer, said he also has put off planting his tomato garden until his sister is there to help like old times.

He has been urging her to start looking ahead to a new life.

"Well, here we are," she wrote to her daughter recently. "It's nearly May and I keep wondering how much longer can this possibly take? I've come to the realization it can take as long as it needs. What I wouldn't give for a time machine right now, but then the big question would be if I'd want to go forward or backward? I definitely would go backward, but only if I could take my knowledge with me. I don't want to start over. I wouldn't mind another chance at motherhood."

Victim's family divided
The victim's family remains divided over the ruling.

Brenda Brown, the victim's daughter-in-law, said she always had doubts about Debra Brown's conviction.

"She took pretty good care of grandpa, and grandpa took pretty good care of her," Brenda Brown said of the 75-year-old victim — affectionately called Grandpa Lael. "I never could figure it out. I kept thinking back, why would you cut off the arm that fed you?"

But Brenda Brown said her own children aren't convinced of her innocence.

"My kids keep saying, 'Mom, she had to do it,'" she said.

Debra Brown's new defense team argued during court hearings earlier this year that a former tenant, who committed suicide in August 2007, had motive to kill Lael Brown but was not properly investigated.

The Utah Attorney General's Office acknowledged the original investigation was "not without problems," but declined to comment further on the case handled by the Logan Police Department. Logan police spokesman Jeff Curtis said Brown received a fair trial.

"We're a little surprised at the ruling," Curtis said. "She was found guilty in front of a jury. ... That's our only stand on it."

It wasn't immediately clear if prosecutors planned to appeal.

Meanwhile, Monroe called Brown's anticipated release "a very important public moment."

"Her freedom is not just for her and her family," Monroe said. "It's about all of us. When there's a miscarriage of justice, it's important the state correct it."

The 2008 law applied in Brown's case automatically provides financial restitution for up to 15 years served in prison to help rebuild her life. That amount has yet to be determined.

'System failed her'
Williams said her mother wants to enjoy the little things in life — retreats to an old fishing hole and holding grandchildren who range in age from 16 months to 13 years.

And, of course, she wants to ride that blue Raleigh retro cruiser.

About three years ago, Brown told her brother about her dream then mailed him a photo of the bike clipped from a magazine.

He found one in Boise, Idaho, and her daughter ordered the cute, white-plastic basket from France that her mother envisioned.

"The system failed her, but in the end it was the system that got her out," Scott said. "We're just hopeful this is it. We've had so many ups and down, (when) we see her riding her bike out there ... we'll know she'll be home."