DRAPER - Debra Brown says the justice system worked - it just took a little longer than normal.
With a smile and tears in her eyes, the 53-year-old Logan native walked free from the Utah State Prison on Monday afternoon after nearly 17 years behind bars.
About three dozen family and friends gathered in a rainstorm outside the prison women's facility to greet Brown. Dressed in gray sweats and white sneakers, she embraced her children, grandchildren and friends before releasing two dozen yellow balloons into the air. She then walked down a red carpet brought by supporters that led to a powder-blue bicycle she told her family she dreamed about riding on to freedom.
Her case captured the state's attention last week after she became the first person in Utah to be exonerated of a murder conviction under a new innocence law that allows new evidence in old cases.
At a press conference with her attorney later Monday afternoon, Brown's positive attitude shined as she spoke to reporters about her ordeal.
"Everything that comes at you in life has a lesson for you to learn," she said. "And until you learn that lesson, you're going to keep repeating that same thing until you get it right."
She said she came out of prison a different person.
"While I wouldn't want to repeat this little stint I just did, I wouldn't give up those lessons for anything because it's changed who I am," she said. "I like the Debra Brown that's come out."
Brown was convicted in 1995 of shooting her employer and friend, Lael Brown, who is not related, in his Logan home in 1993. In 2002, the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center took on her case and conducted its own investigation.
A 2008 law allowing new post-conviction evidence to be introduced made it possible for Brown's case to be brought in front of a judge. In January, 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda held an evidentiary hearing for Brown, and in May issued a ruling declaring her innocent.
Alan Sullivan, Brown's lead attorney and board member for the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, said his client felt relieved after testifying for the first time in January.
"This is a woman who cares deeply about the truth," he said. "She cares deeply about the opportunity she had to tell her story finally."
Sullivan said DiReda made a courageous move when he ruled Brown factually innocent of the 1993 murder of Lael Brown.
"We believe the judge got it right," he said. "The judge issued a painstaking opinion in which he reviewed all the facts of the case and he concluded ... that Deb is innocent."
DiReda ruled Monday that Debra Brown will receive $570,780 in financial assistance for the time she spent in prison.
By law, Brown is entitled to a compensation equal to an average Utah salary for up to 15 years she has been incarcerated. A first payment of $114,156 is due to Brown within approximately two and a half months.
DiReda also ordered an expungement of Brown's murder conviction, calling on the state's Bureau of Criminal Identification in the Department of Public Safety to take "all steps necessary to immediately expunge Debra Brown's conviction of aggravated murder from her record."
Being released from prison, said Brown, was taking some time to get used to.
"I can't even begin to describe what this feels like," she said. "I don't think Webster could do it any justice."
Brown thanked her family, DiReda and her legal team.
"I've been richly blessed," she said.
While in custody, Brown took several inmates under her wing, teaching them how to cook and crochet.
"I tried to make it a happier place," she said. "One of the church people there called me the ‘den mother.'"
Among the first items on her to-do list, Brown wants to see the Draper LDS Temple up close - an edifice she's watched being constructed through her cell window over the years.
While incarcerated, Brown enrolled in LDS Institute programs and has told people she plans to be baptized into the faith following her release.
On Monday, she said she was looking forward to the little things as well. She'd like to eat some fish, she said.
"I'm so hungry for fish I wouldn't mind if we caught one," she said as the room burst with laughter.
Her daughter, Alana, and two sons, Ryan and Josh, sat next to their mother as she spoke.
"We all stand in amazement of who our mother is and what she's become," said her son, Ryan Buttars. "Every experience that's handed to us in life is for our own good. Before she went into prison, she wasn't the person she is right now."
Brown's story started when she discovered Lael Brown lying in his bed with three fatal bullet wounds to the head on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 7, 1993. Brown said she went to the victim's home to check on him when he failed to meet her for coffee that morning at Angie's restaurant. Brown called police to report the death, then became a primary suspect in the case and was arrested 10 months later.
In his ruling last week, DiReda said Brown established her factual innocence not by suggesting the circumstantial case against her was insupportable, but by showing she had an alibi at the time of the victim's death.
In the original 1995 trial, 12 Box Elder County jurors were told that Lael Brown died sometime early in the morning Saturday, Nov. 6, 1993. But two newly discovered witnesses, including Delwin Hall of Logan, told DiReda's court they saw Lael Brown at Angie's restaurant Saturday afternoon.
"(The) petitioner could not have killed Lael Saturday morning," writes DiReda. "The significance of the evidence provided by Hall cannot be overstated. Unlike the circumstantial evidence presented by the state at trial that Lael was dead sometime Saturday morning, Hall's testimony and statement to police are direct evidence that Lael was alive Saturday afternoon."
The new information, he added, supports the testimony given by Utah Chief Medical Examiner Todd Grey. He testified earlier this year that the victim was killed sometime around 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6, and no later than 3 a.m. Sunday. That finding, he said, came from his evaluation of the victim's stage of rigor mortis.
Brown testified she was with her boyfriend and family Saturday afternoon through the late evening - meaning she couldn't have murdered the victim at the time argued in trial.