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17 years later, Debra Brown denies murder on stand; prosecutor says conviction should stand

OGDEN — Debra Brown lowered her head and closed her eyes as she remembered the morning of Nov. 7, 1993.

"I found him laying in his bed," she said, her constant smile fading as she choked up. "He was laying on his side, toward the wall, in a big puddle of blood."

For the last 17 years, Brown has been in the Utah State Prison for the murder of Lael Brown, her boss and her "buddy." But she's never been able to publicly declare her innocence, until now.

"Did you murder Lael Brown?" her attorney, Alan Sullivan, asked.

"I did not," Brown said immediately and strongly.

"Is there anything else you'd like to tell the judge?" Sullivan asked.

"Regardless of the outcome of today's hearing," she told the judge, "I'm grateful that I was able to be here today and finally get to say the things I've got to say."

With help from the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, Brown is appealing her conviction under a new 2008 law that allows for a determination of factual innocence if new evidence is discovered.

Brown's attorneys believe she was convicted on circumstantial evidence, the result of shoddy police work and ineffective attorneys.

It was a good presentation but contained nothing new, assistant Utah Attorney General Scott Reed said.

"We claim that there is no evidence for factual innocence at this point," Reed told 2nd District Court Judge Michael D. DiReda Friday afternoon. The hearing will continue Monday afternoon.

Reed referenced the Utah code that says factual innocence can only be established if the new, credible evidence proves the individual didn't commit the crime for which he or she was sentenced, as well as any lesser and included offense which related to that crime.

Reed reminded the judge that despite denying it for years, Brown has finally admitted she forged several checks from Lael Brown's bank account — the aggravating factor that increased her murder charge to aggravated murder because of the chance for financial gain, Reed said.

"I'm not going to insult the court and sit here and justify it," Brown said of the forgeries. "Lust. Greed. There's not an excuse to do that to a friend and break a trust like that."

Lael Brown, a beloved friend and employer, had frequently loaned her money in the past, and Debra Brown testified that at the time of his death, she still believed she owed him nearly $3,500, even if he didn't know it.

Lael Brown often loaned people money, she testified, and he was known to have large amounts of cash in his house because of rent payments from his many tenants.

Sylvan Bassett testified Friday about a conversation he'd had with Bobby Sheen, who had been evicted from one of Lael Brown's apartments.

"He was mad," Bassett said. "He said, 'That dirty S.O.B. has got so much money. If we had half the money that he has stashed away we'd both be rich.'"

Several months after Lael Brown's death, Bassett testified that suddenly Sheen had piles of money, several inches thick.

"It was just really odd because he had no way of coming up with that unless he stole it," Bassett said. Sheen also showed Bassett a gun, which he said he had to dispose of for a friend.

"After these conversations did you suspect Sheen (had killed Lael Brown?)" asked Debra Brown's attorney, Christopher Martinez.

"In my heart I know that he had something to do with it," Bassett said, adding that when he tried to take this information to Clara Brown and the police, they didn't listen. Sheen committed suicide in August 2007.

Along with details about Sheen, Debra Brown's attorneys asked her about interactions with previous attorneys. She estimated she met with one of them every other week for a few months, and when he was excused from the case for a conflict of interest, she met with the new ones three or four times, for a maximum of four hours total.

"Did either (attorney) provide you with any information about the (case)?" asked her current attorney, Alan Sullivan.

"Every time I would ask questions, (my old attorney) would get a little bit upset," she said. "He'd say, 'you just worry about your testimony and let me take care of this.'"

She said she never saw the police reports or knew there were other suspects.

After a trial in 1995, during which her attorneys didn't put her on the stand, she was sentenced to life in prison.

After Brown's attorneys respond to the motion to dismiss the case, the state will present arguments and then both sides will close. The judge will most likely issue a written decision a few days or weeks later.

Brown's family is clinging to the hope that they'll soon be able to introduce their mother back into the world she's missed out on for so many years.

"We'll never get back what was taken away," said her now 35-year-old son Ryan Buttars. "But we're not bitter at all. It's been 17 years. There's been a lot of time to be bitter. We just want her to be free."

Contributing: Emiley Morgan

e-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com