New trial for man convicted of killing 3 firefighters in Bricelyn St. arson
The court found that prosecutors withheld evidence that they offered reward money for witness testimony
By Paula Reed Ward
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PITTSBURGH — The state Superior Court on Friday affirmed a lower-court decision last year awarding a new trial to the man convicted of killing three Pittsburgh firefighters in a 1995 Valentine's Day fire.
Gregory Brown, 37, had his original conviction overturned by Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III, who found that the prosecution withheld impeachment evidence from Brown's defense concerning two critical witnesses who were promised reward money for their testimony.
The Allegheny County District Attorney's office appealed that decision on three grounds, and on Friday, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a 2-1 decision in Brown's favor, finding that he was "thwarted by the commonwealth's repeated denials that a reward had even been paid."
The DA's office has not yet said if it will appeal. If it does, it could ask for an en banc hearing before a panel of no more than nine Superior Court judges or ask that the case be heard by the state Supreme Court.
In the 50-page opinion, written by Judge John T. Bender and joined by Judge Christine L. Donohue, the court agreed with the lower court's interpretation of the case. Judge Cheryl Allen filed a dissenting opinion, finding that the issue of the reward money was well-known in the community.
Brown was found guilty in 1997 of three counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to serve life in prison without parole. At trial, prosecutors argued that Brown and his mother, Darlene Buckner, were seeking to collect on a $20,000 renter's insurance policy she had taken out.
Buckner, who was also charged, testified that she and her son had left the home about 45 minutes before the fire began and that when they returned it was burning.
Firefighters Thomas Brooks, Patricia Conroy and Mark Kolenda were killed after they became trapped in the basement when a stairway collapsed.
The fire was ruled an arson but went unsolved until eight months later, when it was announced that there was a $15,000 reward for information that led to an arrest and conviction. That same day, a neighbor, Keith Wright, came forward, saying he saw Brown standing across the street from the house when smoke began to stream from it.
Another key witness at trial, a juvenile with whom Brown spent time at a boot camp program, also claimed that Brown bragged to him twice that he set the fire.
During the 1997 trial, that witness, Ibrahim Abdullah, testified he had not been promised anything. But during an appeals hearing in 2012, he said he was told he'd get reward money by ATF Agent Jason Wick.
"In addition, Abdullah provided that Agent Wick told him, 'I didn't promise you anything, so if they ask you if you was [sic] promised anything,' you know, he wasn't -- 'I never said I promised you anything; right?' and I was, like, Yeah.'"
Although Brown began his appeals on the reward money issue immediately after his conviction, there was no evidence that any had been paid until the now-defunct Innocence Institute at Point Park University filed a federal records request -- 15 years after the conviction -- revealing payments totaling $15,000.
In its appeal of Judge Williams' granting of a new trial, the prosecution claimed Brown's appeal was untimely because the reward money information was available to him.
But Judges Bender and Donohue disagreed, finding that Brown did exercise due diligence and sought information about the potential that witnesses were paid immediately after his trial.
"During these proceedings, the commonwealth never revealed that Wright and Abdullah had been paid from the ATF reward fund in 1998. In fact, in 2002, the commonwealth specifically stated in federal court that it could not find any evidence of rewards being paid in this case, despite the fact that it is now known that the rewards had been paid to Wright and Abdullah four years earlier."
The Superior Court also found that even if there had been a time bar on Brown's appeal, the "governmental interference exception" regarding Agent Wick's actions before, during and after trial would apply.
The prosecution also argued on appeal that the reward money issue was not material to the case, did not prejudice Brown and that without it, there was still sufficient evidence to convict him.
Again, the court disagreed.
"Given the circumstantial and sparse nature of the evidence incriminating [Brown], evidence of [his] confession/admission was by far the strongest evidence against him. Indeed, the complexion of the case against [Brown] changes dramatically in the absence of this evidence."
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