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Allegheny County judge adheres to legal principles in arson retrial, expert says

| Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, 12:03 a.m.

An Allegheny County judge “followed very clearly established legal principles” when he granted a new trial to a man convicted of starting a fire that killed three Pittsburgh firefighters, a criminal law and civil rights expert said on Thursday.

Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams granted Gregory Brown, 36, a new trial based on evidence that prosecutors never told jurors and the defense that a federal agent and a prosecutor promised two key witnesses cash rewards for their testimony.

“The courts have consistently said that evidence that would impeach or undermine the credibility of a prosecutor's witness must be shared with the defense, and surely paying someone for their testimony is,” said David Rudovsky, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Allegheny County District Attorney's Office immediately appealed Williams' decision but declined to comment.

Prosecutors argued at a May 2012 hearing that Brown did not file his appeal in time, and even if he had, the jury's knowing that witnesses Keith Wright and Ibrahim Abdullah received $10,000 and $5,000, respectively, wouldn't have affected the outcome of the case.

Brown, who maintained his innocence, is serving three consecutive life terms on three counts of second-degree murder for starting the fire on Feb. 14, 1995, in his East Hills home to help his mother collect insurance money. Firefighters Patricia Conroy, 43, Marc Kolenda, 27, and Capt. Thomas Brooks, 42, died when an interior stairwell collapsed.

U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton called Williams' decision “unjust” and said allegations that Assistant U.S. Attorney Shaun Sweeney withheld knowledge of the reward “are without factual or legal merit.”

“Sweeney is an outstanding public servant, one of the finest arson prosecutors in the nation, and currently serves as the chief of the Civil Rights Section of the U.S. Attorney's Office,” Hickton said.

Sam Rabadi, special agent in charge at the Philadelphia field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the federal agency stands by Jason Wick, the ATF agent who offered the reward.

“The ATF disagrees with the court's conclusions and reasoning in its decision to overturn the conviction,” Rabadi said in a prepared statement.

Wes Oliver, a law professor at Duquesne University, said prosecutors had a duty to let the defense know about the reward so Brown could refute their witnesses' testimony.

Prosecutors said Brown's mother, Darlene Buckner, took out a $20,000 renter's insurance policy three months before the fire, according to court records.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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