Allegheny County judge adheres to legal principles in arson retrial, expert says
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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Sports Deli is latest tenant to say goodbye to Parkway Center Mall
- Muslim civil rights group seeks investigation into shooting of Pittsburgh taxi driver
- Woman shot in shoulder during McKeesport fight
- Package thefts can be prevented, police, experts say
- Shooting of Pittsburgh cab driver spotlights risks of profession
- Newsmaker: Norman L. Bier
- Renovation planned for blighted homes in Garfield
- Century Inn owner hopes to reopen Washington County landmark, gutted by fire, by end of next year
- Legislators, Wolf agree on one thing: Higher work zone fines
- Alpine touring skiing movement faces uphill climb in Western Pa.
- In letter, Plum school superintendent reassures parents on safety