Man convicted in fatal arson wants reopening of case

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A man convicted of setting a 1995 blaze that killed three Pittsburgh firefighters is asking a judge to reconsider his case.

Greg Brown Jr., 33, who has been in state prison since 1997, serving three consecutive life prison terms, claims that he has new evidence that shows that two witnesses who received reward money after the trial did not disclose potential payment at trial and that the fire on Bricelyn Street in Homewood wasn't arson. That evidence came as a result of an investigation conducted by the Innocence Institute of Point Park University.

The case is assigned to Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III.

An amended petition for post-conviction relief from the defendant is due Feb. 28, and the district attorney's office must file a response by the end of April. A hearing on the issues is scheduled for June 20.

Mr. Brown was convicted Feb. 21, 1997, of three counts of second-degree murder, two counts of arson and insurance fraud. He was found not guilty of criminal conspiracy.

His mother, Darlene Buckner, who was charged along with him, was found guilty of insurance fraud. However, she was acquitted on charges of homicide, arson and conspiracy.

She was sentenced to three years' probation.

The early morning Valentine's Day fire killed firefighters Thomas Brooks, 42; Patricia Conroy, 43; and Marc Kolenda, 27.

They were trapped in a lower-level family room and died of smoke inhalation after their air tanks ran out.

Prosecutors accused Mr. Brown, who was then 17, and his mother of conspiring to burn their rented Bricelyn Street home to collect on a $20,000 insurance policy that had been taken out in the months before the blaze.

However, Mr. Brown and Ms. Buckner claimed that they were at a Giant Eagle shopping when the fire started and arrived home to see flames coming from the house.

A jury deliberated over three days before announcing its verdicts.

Over the past several years, Mr. Brown lost several rounds of appeals in both state and federal court.

Earlier this year, he filed notice that he had newly discovered evidence, which Mr. Brown believes entitles him either to have his conviction vacated or provide him with a new trial. The Innocence Institute of Point Park University had conducted an investigation into the case and has written about what it found.

According to the petition, which is based on the institute's findings, two key witnesses at trial were able to connect him to the fire.

The first, Keith Wright, who was a neighbor, placed Mr. Brown at the scene that night, and another, Ibrahim Abdullah, claims he heard Mr. Brown confess to the crime.

Defense attorney David Fawcett writes in the petition that in October 1995 the then-federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms announced a $15,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.

Two months after the reward was announced, Mr. Wright came forward and told investigators he saw Mr. Brown standing outside of his home the night of the fire before emergency crews arrived on scene, then saw Mr. Brown cross a neighbor's yard and leave the area.

The other witness, Mr. Abdullah, had been bunkmates with Mr. Brown at a youth detention facility after the fire. The petition claims that ATF agents contacted Mr. Abdullah and others at the detention center in the late spring of 1996 to see if Mr. Brown had ever spoken of the fire.

Mr. Abdullah, who was 15 at the time, told an ATF agent that Mr. Brown admitted intentionally setting the blaze.

At trial in 1997, both Mr. Wright and Mr. Abdullah testified that they were not receiving any financial benefit for their testimony.

A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Innocence Institute with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives showed that two witnesses were paid a total of $15,000 in August 1998.

The documents provided have the names of the payees redacted, but Mr. Abdullah admitted to institute investigators in August that he was paid $5,000. Mr. Fawcett could not cite definitive evidence that Mr. Wright received the $10,000 check.

Mr. Fawcett said the government's withholding of the payment information constituted "gross violations" of Mr. Brown's due process rights.

As for the cause of the fire not being arson, Mr. Fawcett said that issue will be explored thoroughly in the petition to be filed in February.

In the meantime, he said that Gerald Hurst, the fire science expert who reviewed the file for the Innocence Institute, believes the fire was caused by a natural gas leak. His expert report is not yet complete, Mr. Fawcett said.

In an interview last week, Dr. Hurst said that investigators on the Bricelyn Street fire failed to eliminate all accidental or naturally occurring fire causes before moving to arson. He said that a firefighter responding to the scene reported seeing a horizontal, blue flame through a basement window, shooting from right to left.

"It appeared to be a continuous burn," Dr. Hurst said. "Natural gas would explain it brilliantly."

Though investigators eliminated the furnace as a possible cause, Dr. Hurst said they did not eliminate the natural gas lines in the house.

"The fact that three firefighters died is a real tragedy, obviously, and I think people were looking for some place to put the blame," said Mr. Fawcett. "What resulted was an investigative team that was overeager to get a conviction, and a jury eager to convict.

"And that can be a recipe for another tragedy -- injustice."

Mike Manko, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, said he would not comment on the allegations raised in the petition and instead would allow the office to speak through the response it files in court in April.

The Pittsburgh Fire Bureau referred calls to Joanna Doven, a spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who did not return a call for comment.

Bill Moushey, the director of the Innocence Institute, said he began working on the case seven years ago when Mr. Brown's mother, Ms. Buckner, approached him. He was unable for several years to find anything useful for the case, but last year he and his staff went back to the case and filed the Freedom of Information Act request with the ATF.

"I'm not here to take a position on this story at all, other than to do a thorough investigation," Mr. Moushey said. "We don't try to exonerate anybody. We just try to find the truth."


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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