Last week we got the distressing news from our colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center that after agreeing not to appeal a court’s finding that Deb Brown was actually innocent, that the Utah Attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, reversed course and did file the appeal before the deadline to do so.
Deb Brown served just under 17 years in prison for a murder she did not commit before being released from prison three weeks ago by a judge, who found her factually innocent of the November 1993 shooting death of her friend and employer. OK, so a judge, after hearing evidence from the prosecutor and defense, weighs the evidence and determines it proves Brown’s innocence. This sounds eerily similar to our the Derrick Williams case here in Florida. So what could they possibly be appealing? Do they believe that the judge reached the wrong result? Not really:
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff — explaining his decision to appeal Debra Brown’s exoneration for a 1993 murder in Logan — said Thursday he does not want the case to set a “fatally flawed” legal precedent.
“If we do not [appeal], we fear there will be a floodgate opened — that every judge out there will become another Monday morning quarterback, giving another bite of the apple to everybody who’s been convicted of a crime,” Shurtleff said at a news conference.
. . .
On Thursday, surrounded by supportive county attorneys from across the state, Shurtleff said, “When it comes to proving guilt or innocence, you have to lay the emotions aside. You cannot base it on how you’re feeling in your heart or your gut. It’s based on facts and law.”
So let’s get this straight, the Utah AG, at least publicly, doesn’t base his appeal of this exoneration on a disagreement with the result. Instead, he assembles all the county prosecutors in Utah for a photo op so they can perform a collective assault on Utah’s law allowing individuals to present free-standing claims of actual innocence. But this is just a veiled excuse that has little basis in reality:
[Professor Dan] Medwed noted that RMIC had worked with the AG’s Office to fashion a balanced statute. He said prosecutors are now refusing to support the law because they are sore losers.
Alan Sullivan, one of Brown’s attorneys, added that DiReda — who found the woman could not have committed the murder — followed the rules and considered all the evidence presented during seven days of testimony earlier this year. Sullivan said his team proved that the circumstantial case against Brown was groundless, and that the police investigation was sloppy and unreliable.
RMIC officials insist the Brown decision will not set precedent for future cases because it is a district court ruling based on very specific facts.
The Utah legislature passed a law to provide an avenue to innocent individuals to have a court proceeding to determine their actual innocence to a high standard of proof. When that law, which the AG previously supported, worked exactly the way the legislature envisioned, the prosecutors try for the double jackpot: use this appeal not only to return an actually innocent woman to prison, but also to invalidate the statute which led to her exoneration in the process. Now after they pass the law they are worried about floodgates? Where is the overflow of petitions? Did they actually expect to pass a law and no one to file under it?
What this all demonstrates is while certain segments of the criminal justice community will sometimes agree, in principle, that we need reform to help prevent or remedy wrongful convictions, they ultimately are averse to the most central plank of our criminal justice system: that innocent people shouldn’t go to prison for crimes they didn’t commit and, if they are wrongfully convicted and incarcerated, they should have a fair shot at righting that wrong.
The prosecutor community in Utah should be ashamed of this cowardly act that does little to further justice.