Attorneys Seek Dismissal of Charges in Blaze That Killed City Firefighters

By Ward, Paula Reed | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), January 13, 2018 | Go to article overview

Attorneys Seek Dismissal of Charges in Blaze That Killed City Firefighters


Ward, Paula Reed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Attorneys for a man accused of setting a fire in East Hills on Valentine's Day 1995 that killed three firefighters argued to a federal court judge Friday that prosecutorial misconduct and the destruction of evidence ought to prohibit their client from being tried again.

Gregory Brown Jr. 40, initially was tried in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court in 1997 and found guilty of three counts of second-degree murder for the deaths of Thomas Brooks, 42, Patricia Conroy, 43, and Marc Kolenda, 27. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In February 2014, however, Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III ordered that Mr. Brown's conviction be vacated and granted a new trial, finding that the defense should have been told that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives agents had offered reward money to witnesses in exchange for their testimony.

The state Superior Court upheld Judge Williams' decision, and the case was slated for a new trial before him.

But in November 2016, faced with Judge Williams' decision not to recuse himself from the case as the District Attorney's office had requested, the state prosecutor's office decided to withdraw its charges.

At the same time, the U.S. Attorney's Office obtained a federal indictment against Mr. Brown on one count of malicious destruction of property by fire resulting in death.

The case now is assigned to U.S. District Judge David S. Cercone, who originally heard the state case when he served on the Common Pleas bench.

On Friday, Judge Cercone heard arguments on two defense motions - one seeking dismissal of the case and another seeking suppression of evidence. The hearing will conclude Feb. 20.

In their motion to dismiss, Mr. Brown's attorneys argued that to try their client in federal court is a violation of his right against double jeopardy - or being tried twice for the same crime.

The prosecution, however, contends that federal court is a separate jurisdiction. And Judge Cercone questioned whether jeopardy is even attached since Mr. Brown's first conviction was vacated.

The defense also argued that because the ATF was a lead investigator, and because Assistant U.S. attorney Shaun Sweeney was loaned to the DA's office to help try the case because of his expertise in arson, the federal government was so intricately intertwined in Mr. …

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