Pittsburgh's Fatal Bricelyn Street fire case moved to federal court
November 5, 2016 12:18 AM
Gregory Brown Jr.
By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Allegheny County prosecutors didn’t like how Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III handled the triple-fatal fire case against Greg Brown.
They didn’t like that Judge Williams vacated Mr. Brown’s 1997 convictions for second-degree murder and arson. And they didn’t like that he refused to recuse himself from the case when they asked last year because of what they viewed as a conflict of interest that occurred 12 years ago.
So, instead of taking the case to retrial in state court in January as scheduled, the district attorney’s office turned over jurisdiction to the federal government.
And on Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney’s office obtained an indictment against Mr. Brown in U.S. District Court for one count of malicious destruction of property resulting in death. A conviction carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Although Mr. Brown’s defense criticizes the move to federal court, an expert in criminal law said it’s perfectly legal.
“Forum shopping has a negative connotation, but there’s no restriction on state law enforcement authorities going to the feds and saying, ‘Hey, would you take this?’” said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff.
“You can argue there’s something politically wrong with it or morally wrong with it. There’s nothing legally wrong with it.”
Mr. Brown was found guilty in 1997 of three counts of second-degree murder, arson and insurance fraud stemming from the Feb. 14, 1995, blaze on Bricelyn Street in East Hills that killed Pittsburgh firefighters Thomas Brooks, 42, Patricia Conroy, 43, and Marc Kolenda, 27.
Mr. Brown's conviction was vacated in February 2014 -—a decision upheld by the appellate courts — after Judge Williams found that there was prosecutorial misconduct during the first trial. It was discovered years later that two of the key witnesses against Mr. Brown were paid reward money for their testimony, even though they both testified that wasn't the case.
On Friday, the district attorney’s office filed a motion with Judge Williams to withdraw the state charges. A hearing is expected to be held Tuesday.
District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said federal court will be “a better forum for evidentiary purposes. We've been surprised by some of the rulings in the state system on the law."
The DA's office had filed a number of motions in the state case, including asking Judge Williams to recuse himself based on an interaction in 2004 that he had with an Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent when the judge was still working as an attorney. That agent is expected to testify in the current case.
“Substantial questions have been raised which undermine confidence in a retrial in state court," U.S. Attorney David Hickton said in a statement Friday. “There is federal jurisdiction, there is a substantial federal interest in protection against arson, there is a substantial community interest in securing justice for firefighters killed by arson, and there is no federal statute of limitations given the arson caused the death of the victims."
Mr. Burkoff said the federal government is a separate sovereign, so while the alleged crimes occurred in Allegheny County against the state, they are also a crime against the country.
“They did it tactically because they didn’t want to appear in front of this judge and probably for other reasons,” Mr. Burkoff said. “But that particular tactic creates no legal problems.”
But defense attorney Dave Fawcett called it “gamesmanship.
“It’s exactly the same conduct we’ve seen over 20 years,” Mr. Fawcett said. “The government using its resources to play games with a person’s life.”
Said Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project who is also representing Mr. Brown:
“Greg Brown is an innocent man. There was no arson. We proved in state court, by overwhelming evidence, astounding misconduct by ATF agents that led to the wrongful conviction. So it is sad the prosecution continues, and that the U.S. attorney chooses to criticize judges rather than recognize and address the severe misconduct of federal agents.”
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab.