First inmate to be exonerated, freed by new Utah law

SALT LAKE CITY — 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 births 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.

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.

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 schoolkids. And forget about e-books.

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

Years behind bars hardened her features, David Scott, Brown's brother, 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.