By Aaron Falk| The Salt Lake Tribune
First Published Jul 29 2012 09:05 pm . Updated Aug 12th 2012
When Debra Brown walked out of the prison at Point of the Mountain on a rainy morning in May 2011, after 17 years there wrongly convicted of murder, it was the “legal and emotional high” of Katie Monroe’s time in Utah.
But as Monroe, the first-ever director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, prepares to leave her post next month, there’s something that still nags at her.
“I always think of the people who are still there,” she says.
Brown’s path to freedom started as one of the roughly 10 letters from convicts and their families that RMIC receives each week, claiming innocence. Six years after taking the reins at the center, Monroe says she’s stepping aside at a time when the organization needs new leadership to continue growing, so it can handle more cases like Brown’s.
Jennifer Hare, who most recently worked for Family Promises, a nonprofit in Salt Lake that helps homeless families, will replace Monroe. The new director’s experience with nonprofits and fundraising will help the RMIC continue to grow, Monroe said.
“As a nonprofit, we fail if we don’t have the support of the community, and that would be tragic,” she said.
When Monroe came to Utah from Washington, D.C., she became the first full-time staffer for the RMIC, an organization that investigates claims of innocence in Utah, Wyoming and Nevada.
“Before that it was a band of volunteers trying to do this work around the fringe of their full-time jobs,” she said.
Her office was a donated desk at the end of a hallway in the Community Legal Center, and she often took phone calls outside for fear of disturbing others who were working.
Now, thanks to a federal grant Monroe helped procure, RMIC has three full-time staffers and new office space downtown. The center has also built relationships with law students and law firms, who help screen and litigate innocence cases.
“It’s really grown up around me,” she said.
And because of her, colleagues said.
“She has just brought an enormous amount of commitment to the project,” Salt Lake City attorney Alan Sullivan said.
Sullivan was on RMIC’s board when Monroe was hired, and later he worked as the lead attorney in Brown’s innocence case.
Brown was convicted in 1995 of fatally shooting her friend and employer – 75-year-old Lael Brown – at his Logan home.
Last year, 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda found Brown innocent of the 1993 murder, based on hearings that included new testimony. The ruling was the first of its kind in Utah under a statute that allows convictions to be challenged based on new facts rather than new DNA evidence.
Winning innocence cases is “some combination of not giving up, leaving no stone unturned, throwing everything you have at it, and some piece of luck,” Monroe said.
In addition to legal advice, Sullivan said, Monroe offers convicts friendship and guidance as their cases slowly work through the system.
But Monroe’s work was never more personal than in the 11 years her mother spent in prison for the murder of her longtime boyfriend. Roger de la Burde was found on his couch, fatally shot with his own gun in 1992. The death had been ruled a suicide, but a detective focused on Beverly Monroe as a suspect, and she was eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
After a decade of work, a federal court overturned Beverly Monroe’s conviction, calling the case a “monument to prosecutorial indiscretions and mishandling,” and prosecutors declined to try the case again.