SALT LAKE CITY – A woman exonerated after spending 17 years behind bars for the murder of her boss said Wednesday that despite her freedom, a part of her life is on hold as the state appeals the release.
"It's hard to go out and get a job when your record is not expunged," Debra Brown said. "Who's going to hire you if they thought you killed your last boss?"
Brown became the first Utah inmate exonerated under a 2008 state law allowing convictions to be overturned based on new factual, instead of scientific, evidence. She was released May 9, just in time to celebrate a belated Mother's Day with her three children.
Utah Attorney Mark Shurtleff initially said he would not challenge the judge's ruling that found her "factually innocent" of killing her employer and friend. But last week, he changed course and decided to appeal, and prosecutors filed notice with the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Prosecutors claim 2nd District Court Judge Michael DiReda incorrectly applied the 2008 law and said they feared her exoneration would "open the floodgates" to frivolous appeals.
Brown, who has maintained her innocence in the murder but has admitted forging some of his checks, said she is confident she will prevail on appeal.
In her first news conference since Shurtleff's about-face, Brown, 54, said she feels like an adult infant, learning about automated payment systems at gas pumps and in grocery stores and technology that allows photos to be sent across town and around the world instantly.
She recalled a trip to the Motor Vehicle Department to get an ID. "The car told us how to get there," Brown said with a laugh.
"You can't explain to her in one week what's happened in 17 years," said daughter Alana Williams, who was 11 when her mother was arrested in Logan, about 80 miles north of Salt Lake City.
Brown said she wishes, with all the modern marvels she has discovered in the past three weeks, that scientists would come up with a way to read a defendant's mind and heart that would be "truly defining" for the courts.
"I'd let them cut my chest open if it would do anything and let them see I'm not the person they think I am," she said of prosecutors, who still believe she shot and killed Lael Brown, 75. The two are not related.
Brown said she has mixed feelings on whether the case should be re-opened.
"Whoever did this is in a far worse prison than the one I came out of," she said. "If they pursue it, it doesn't give (the time) back to me."
While in prison, Brown survived two cancer scares and missed the funerals of her father and grandparents. She now has seven grandchildren. Since her release, she said she has gone on "a million" bicycle rides, with no one telling her when she had to be back, or when to eat or sleep.
On Monday night, she had a makeover that included hair highlights and a peppermint head massage. She now relishes being able to sleep in her own pajamas, without a flashlight being shined in her face.
"Every day is a brand new adventure," she said. "It's been awesome."
When she was released, Brown vowed she wouldn't dwell on the past and would only look forward — a promise that has been harder to keep than expected. She said a new necklace with a charm of the "Angel Moroni" — the statue that sits atop the Salt Lake City temple — pulls her through the down days.
"I still have faith," she said of both her religion and her lawyers. "But I'm confused" about the court system. She wondered about the legal hurdles she has gone through to clear her name.
"How many times do you have to mash potatoes before they're mashed?" she asked.
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