Nineteen years after a Bricelyn Street fire killed three Pittsburgh firefighters, a judge granted the man convicted of setting the blaze a new trial, saying prosecutors failed to reveal that two key witnesses were paid for their testimony.
Greg Brown, who was 17 at the time of the 1995 fire, will have a bond hearing Monday. He has been incarcerated since his arrest in April 1996.
Dave Fawcett, one of Brown's attorneys, was elated when Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III announced his decision Wednesday.
"We're so thankful that we're in the place we are now," he said. "There's hope here. There's hope for justice, and that's as much as we can ask for on this one good day."
Brown, whose reaction was more understated, gave a thumbs-up to his family members in attendance, including his mother, as he was led out of the courtroom.
He was found guilty in 1997 of second-degree murder, arson and conspiracy and sentenced to three consecutive life prison terms.
Firefighters Thomas Brooks, 42, Patricia Conroy, 43, and Marc Kolenda, 27, were killed fighting the blaze at Brown's Brushton home when they became trapped in a lower-level family room after stairs collapsed. They died of smoke inhalation when their air tanks ran out.
Prosecutors alleged that Brown conspired with his mother, Darlene Buckner, to set the blaze to collect on an insurance policy. She was found not guilty of murder, arson and conspiracy, but was convicted of insurance fraud. Buckner was sentenced to three years' probation.
In 2010, attorneys for Brown filed a petition for post-conviction relief, alleging that they had newly discovered evidence that showed two key witnesses for the prosecution at trial had lied on the stand.
One witness, Ibrahim Abdullah, was a 15-year-old who was housed with Brown at a juvenile placement facility pending trial.
He was offered a $15,000 reward by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives if he testified that he heard Brown confess to committing the crime.
Ibrahim did testify, but when asked if he had been promised any financial benefit, he said he had not.
The other witness was Brown's neighbor. Keith Wright did not come forward with information that he saw Brown at the fire until eight months after the blaze -- within hours of the ATF announcing a reward for information in the case.
Again, the defense said, Mr. Wright failed to disclose at trial he would potentially be paid for his testimony.
Ultimately, Ibrahim received $5,000, and Mr. Wright was paid $10,000.
The defense argued that if Brown's attorney at trial had known about the payments, he could have better cross-examined the witnesses and possibly changed the outcome of the trial.
Judge Williams agreed.
"The evidence was favorable [to the defense] because it would have impeached the source of two critical pieces of the government's evidence," Judge Williams wrote in his 32-page opinion. "The impeaching material was not disclosed by the government. And, finally, the lack of this information made Greg Brown's trial so unfair that the court does not have confidence in the guilt determination."
Throughout his opinion, Judge Williams specifically targeted the lead investigator on the case, ATF Agent Jason Wick, for failing to disclose to the prosecuting attorneys at trial that he discussed with both Ibrahim and Mr. Wright the possibility of reward money.
"Not once, did he inform either prosecutor that Wright and Abdullah were not entirely accurate with their testimony. Stated differently, Jason Wick did not tell either prosecutor that promises were made to them about getting paid from a reward fund.
"Jason Wick had a duty to let the prosecutor know those facts. He did not. And now, some 17 years after a jury convicted Greg Brown, this court must undo the efforts of those 12 citizens."
The judge also singled out one of the prosecutors, Shaun Sweeney, who handled the case on loan from the U.S. attorney's office.
"Fault can also be found with the cross-designated U.S. Attorney, Shaun Sweeney," Judge Williams wrote. " During the federal habeas proceeding, he had dealings with the lawyer representing the District Attorney of Allegheny County. He knew the witnesses had been paid, yet he did not "disclose it to anyone. It doesn't matter "why" disclosure did not occur, all that matters is that it was not done."
Wednesday night, U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton issued a statement, calling the reversal "unjust" and defending Mr. Sweeney as "one of the finest arson prosecutors in the nation."
Mr. Hickton said Mr. Sweeney "continues to have my full confidence."
The Allegheny County district attorney's office, which filed a notice of appeal to the state Superior Court within 30 minutes of the announcement of Judge Williams' decision, declined to comment. They had argued that Brown's petition was barred by time limitations for appeals but more than that, even if the payment information is accurate, it has no bearing on the facts of the case. At the ATF in Philadelphia, Special Agent in Charge Sam Rabadi issued a statement defending the agency's use of rewards in criminal investigations and its agents' actions in the Brown case.
"The [ATF] disagrees with the court's conclusions and reasoning in its decision to overturn the conviction ... " the statement said. "ATF stands by our personnel, our arson investigative techniques, and the use of rewards in criminal investigations. All ATF personnel involved in this investigation adhered to proper investigative protocols and procedures.
"Law enforcement frequently makes use of publicly announced rewards as an investigative tool to encourage citizens of our communities to come forward with information that will generate investigative leads and bring those who commit serious offenses to justice," the statement said.
Joseph King, president of the city firefighters union, said he is willing to let the criminal court system play out.
"We believe in the justice system, and we always have as firefighters. And if this decision is made by the courts, or the judge, that's what we believe in. That's how we were raised," Mr. King said.
Mr. Fawcett said the ATF was "overzealous" in its attempts to find a culprit in the case, and that the defense believes the fire was not intentionally set.
"We believe the evidence is clear that there was not an arson to begin with, and there was no evidence linking Greg Brown to the fire whatsoever," Mr. Fawcett said.
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published February 19, 2014 2:09 PM