Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III has ruled that the prosecution failed to present any evidence to justify its request to remove him from the Bricelyn Street fire case.
The judge denied the request by the district attorney’s office to step down from presiding over the retrial of Gregory Brown at the conclusion of the Nov. 18 hearing on the matter, but issued a written opinion Wednesday as the prosecution takes an appeal to the state Superior Court.
In its notice of appeal, the commonwealth said that Judge Williams’s denial of its motion has "substantially handicapped its prosecution of the case and the ability to seek justice."
Mr. Brown, 38, was originally tried and found guilty of three counts of second-degree murder for the Feb. 14, 1995, blaze that killed Pittsburgh firefighters, Patricia Conroy, 43, and Marc Kolenda, 27, and Capt. Thomas Brooks, 42. However, Judge Williams awarded Mr. Brown a new trial last year after he found that a federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent working on the case, Jason Wick, and the prosecution failed to turn over evidence that witnesses were offered money for their testimony in the first trial in 1997.
In October, the district attorney’s office filed a motion asking Judge Williams to recuse himself, alleging that he was biased against the ATF and an agent who might be used as an expert in the case. The prosecution based its motion on an interaction the judge had with Agent Matthew H. Regentin in 2004 when the judge was still an attorney and represented a Squirrel Hill business owner whose carpet store had burned. During an interview of the business owner, the district attorney’s office wrote, Agent Regentin asked Williams, who had been friends with the owner, if he had burned the store. In his capacity as an attorney, Williams sent a letter to the agent and an arson inspector four days later citing unprofessional conduct.
At the Nov. 18 evidentiary hearing, the prosecution called no witnesses, “despite a recognition that it was their burden of proof,” Judge Williams wrote in his opinion. In addition, it made no effort to authenticate the letter he wrote to the agents.
He called the prosecution’s presentation inadequate.
”With so much wrapped around a particular ATF agent, the court is still at a loss as to why he was not called as a witness,“ he wrote. ”Would he not have been able to shed light on the dynamics of the meeting which generated the [letter].
“The absence of this witness and others did not do the government’s position any favors.”
Judge Williams went on to say that in the prosecution’s concise statement of appeals, it said that he should have referred the matter to another judge for review, yet he noted, that request was never made.
“A concise statement is not the place to be raising matters for the first time.”
Mr. Brown’s defense attorneys have expressed frustration at the prosecution’s appeal, noting that it is simply delaying a case for which their client has already been imprisoned for nearly 20 years.