As she approaches her destination—the tiny, weathered Mormon outpost of Richmond, Utah—Monroe savors a rare victory. Richmond is home to Debra Brown, 54, a soft-spoken, astonishingly unbitter woman who was the first person freed under Utah’s 2008 innocence law. Brown made national headlines last year when, thanks to Monroe’s group, she walked out of prison after 17 years and into her family’s outstretched arms.
A tall, slender woman with auburn hair and a shy smile, Brown waves from the driveway of her aunt’s small house. It’s just a few doors from the trailer where Brown was raised, not far from the town where she supported her three children by plastering walls and laying floor tiles. And it’s just a short trip down the highway from the courthouse where in 1995 she was convicted in the shooting death of her close friend and employer, Lael Brown (no relation), a local landlord.
Debra Brown always swore she didn’t do it, and, in fact, no physical evidence connected her to the murder. Police failed to photograph or preserve key evidence from the house where the landlord was shot—including a stranger’s bloody handprint on the front door. But Debra, a struggling single mother, aroused police suspicion because of a smaller offense: She had forged some checks under Lael Brown’s name. That helped prosecutors make their case, and they convinced a jury that Debra had killed her employer to hide her tracks.
Jurors were never told about another suspect, a convicted thief and drug addict named Bobbie Sheen, who shortly after the shooting had been seen carrying a gun and mysteriously large wads of cash. (A ballistics test showed that Lael Brown had been killed with his own gun, which had then disappeared, presumably stolen by the murderer. The rent money Brown collected that week was missing from the house as well.) Sheen’s car had been seen at Lael Brown’s house that day, and he was furious with the landlord for evicting him weeks earlier. “That dirty SOB has got so much money,” Sheen told a friend, according to court documents. “If we had half the money he has stashed away, we’d both be rich.” Under questioning in court in January 2011, detectives said they could no longer recall why they never pursued the leads they’d received about Sheen. It’s too late now: He committed suicide in 2007.
The story might have ended there, as it does for many people imprisoned for someone else’s crime. A likely suspect is passed over by police. Or the real culprit dies, doesn’t talk or is ignored when he tries to confess in a closed case. But Brown got lucky. Her prison Bible teacher, who believed Brown’s protestations of innocence, contacted the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center in late 2001, and the organization signed on. It took years for the center’s volunteers—University of Utah law professor Jensie L. Anderson and an occasional student, working in their spare time—to gain access to sealed police files, find missing evidence and track down witnesses, some of whom had never testified.
But after Monroe joined the center in 2006, she took two steps that significantly ramped up progress in Brown’s case. Together with Anderson, Monroe created the innocence clinic at the University of Utah to train students as case investigators. And she and Anderson helped persuade Alan Sullivan, a senior attorney at Snell & Wilmer, a leading Salt Lake City law firm, to represent Brown pro bono, a model that the center now employs for all its cases. Her work paid off. In May 2011, after two new witnesses corroborated Brown’s alibi, a judge freed her, ruling that the facts showed Brown could not have committed the crime.