The attorney for a man facing a retrial for the arson deaths of three Pittsburgh firefighters said in a motion filed Friday that there is no reason for the judge on the case to step down.
“The commonwealth has accused this court of nothing more than doing its job — the commonwealth simply takes issue with the outcome,” wrote defense attorney Dave Fawcett.
The Allegheny County District Attorney’s office filed a motion asking for Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III to remove himself from the case of Gregory Brown Jr., who was awarded a new trial in 2014 after it was learned that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives and the prosecution failed to turn over evidence to the defense. Mr. Brown was convicted of three counts of second-degree murder for the Feb. 14, 1995, Bricelyn Street fire in Homewood.
In a motion filed late last month, the prosecution claimed that Judge Williams had a bias against the ATF, as well as a specific agent who could be used as an expert witness in Mr. Brown’s case.
According to the filing, when Judge Williams was still a practicing attorney, he represented a man whose carpet store burned in a fire in 2004. When the ATF was interviewing the client, one of the agents asked Judge Williams, “Did you start the fire at your client’s store?”
Judge Williams was so offended by the question that he wrote a letter back to the agents four days later, saying, “I’ve never had an officer exhibit such ignorance or lack of professionalism regarding the dynamics of an attorney-client relationship.”
First assistant district attorney Rebecca Spangler wrote in her motion that the “ire” in the letter showed that Judge Williams “took this incident personally and harbored a deep resentment toward those investigators.”
In his response, Mr. Fawcett said the prosecution’s motion should be “summarily dismissed.” To obtain recusal, he wrote, the commonwealth must demonstrate “bias, prejudice or unfairness,” and show that the unfairness “raises a substantial doubt as to the ability of the jurist … to proceed impartially.”
In this case, he said, the prosecution's allegations “show nothing more than 1) Judge Williams, as a private practitioner prior to assuming the bench, advocating for his client, and then 2) as the judge presiding over . . . this case, carefully judged the evidence.”
Further, Mr. Fawcett said, any allegation of bias leading to recusal is to be filed at the earliest possible moment — not several years after the appellate hearing. “Here, the commonwealth has failed to come close to meeting its burden and has clearly waived any arguments for recusal by failing to raise them previously.”
A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday.
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2620. First Published November 13, 2015 5:33 PM