Waiting for Justice in Pittsburgh

This afternoon, in a Pittsburgh courtroom, Judge Joseph Williams will tell the world whether Greg Brown’s 17 year ordeal could be coming to an end. Two years ago, we presented evidence to the court that the federal government had withheld critical information that the jury never heard: that the only 2 witnesses to implicate Greg testified under the expectation of receiving thousands of dollars from the federal government. Convicted of setting a fire that was actually a tragic accident he had nothing to do with, Greg waits to learn his fate.

THE FIRE

On February 14, 1995, a fire broke out in the Brown and Buckner family home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While all of the family members got out safely, tragically three firefighters working to extinguish the fire died. A fire analyst went into the house after the fire was finally put out to conduct a “cause and origin” investigation – to find out how and where the fire started. Without conducting the true investigation of accidental causes mandated by the professional standards, the fire was declared “incendiary” and the work of “arson.”

A year later, 17 year-old Greg Brown was arrested and charged with intentionally setting the fire in his own home. His mother was charged as a co-conspirator. The motive was a minimal $15,000 renter’s insurance policy. Greg and his mother maintained their innocence from the very beginning: they had been at a food store getting supplies for a family function the next morning – they even still had the time-stamped receipt. They were not at the house, and no-one started the fire. Indeed, Greg and his mother always said the same thing: the heater had been giving them trouble. Maybe it was a gas leak.

But authorities had their conclusion: we lost three heroes. This was arson.

THE TRIAL

At his trial, 2 witnesses offered testimony to implicate Greg. The first, Keith Wright, was a neighbor who lived down the street from Greg’s home. He testified that he saw Greg standing outside his home staring at the smoke coming from the windows before the fire trucks arrived. This testimony was challenged by the witness’ mother who testified that she called her son to make sure he was safe and that he had been sleeping when she called. This directly challenged Greg’s testimony that he had been at the store. When asked whether he was getting anything for his testimony, he said no. When asked why he only came forward 10 months after the fire, he had no answer.

The second witness – a troubled 15 year-old boy from a dysfunctioinal home – testified that while at a juvenile placement with Greg months after the fire, Greg told him that he had set the fire. When asked whether he expected to receive any benefit for his testimony, the boy said no, and that “it’s the right thing to do.”

After closing arguments, a former neighbor of Greg’s family came to court and showed Greg’s lawyer a flier that had been circulated in the neighborhood 10 months after the fire. It was from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and offered a reward of $15,000 to anyone who could provide information about who had set the fire. The flier was dated 2 days before Keith Wright first identified himself to authorities as having any information.

Greg’s lawyer – a former federal prosecutor himself – was stunned. To him, this was information the government was required to provide to him before trial under the constitutition. Had he known there was a reward out there, his entire case presentation would have been different.

Greg’s lawyer asked the judge to re-open the case to tell the jury about the reward and ask Keith Wright directly whether he knew about the reward offer and whether he expected to receive any of the money. The judge said no. Since Wright had already denied receiving any benefit for his testimony, the evidence was before the jury.

Greg’s mother was found not guilty, but Greg was convicted of arson and second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 2 mandatory life sentences without parole. He was 18 years old.

THE INNOCENCE INSTITUTE INVESTIGATES

In 2010, veteran journalist Bill Moushey of the since-closed Innocence Institute began looking into Greg’s case. He managed to obtain information from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms about the investigation of the fire. What he found shocked him: both witnesses, despite their protestations to the contrary, had received thousands of dollars from the federal government a year after Greg’s conviction. The neighbor? He received $10,000 cash. The troubled boy? $5,000. Cash.

Moushey also contacted world-reknowned scientist Gerald Hurst, and asked him about the cause of the fire. Dr. Hurst reviewed all of the materials available and came to a stark conclusion: there was no evidence that the fire was started intentionally. Indeed, from the statements of other firefighters on the scene who saw a “steady blue flame” shooting across the basement of the house, it appeared that it was exactly what Greg’s family had said all along: the fire was accidental, not arson.

THE PENNSYLVANIA INNOCENCE PROJECT GETS INVOLVED

Moushey contacted the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, and we went to work. We were lucky enough to engage a pro bono attorney in Pittsburgh to help us out. Dave Fawcett was a prominent figure in the Pittsburgh legal and political communities. When he learned of the apparent injustice Greg suffered, he jumped right in. Dave located the neighbor who had received the $5,000 and learned that Wright had known about the reward before he testified, and that he had learned about it from the ATF agent in charge.

Even more alarming, the Project and an investigator located the boy who had testified against Greg. He willingly admitted not only that he was aware of the reward before he testified, but insisted that he expected to get $15,000, not $5,000, for his assistance. We also contacted his former girlfriend and 2 former juvenile probation officers who also confirmed the boy knew about the reward before trial. In fact, all three – who lived in different states and had never discussed the case – told us that the boy was “focused” on the reward, thinking getting the money would solve all his problems.

THE HEARING

In February and May, 2012, several witnesses testified before Judge Williams about their experiences with Greg’s trial. Keith Wright, now suffering from painful medical conditions that limit his ability to speak clearly, testified first. A few months later, the remainder of the witnesses took the stand.

  • The boy who received the $5,000, now a 32 year-old man,  told the court he knew about the reward, and he fully expectted to receive the money for having participated in Greg’s prosecution. In fact, he said that he wanted to back out but was put in a room with the firefighters’ families, who thanked him for his help. After enduring this pressure, he agreed to go through with the testimony.
  • One probation officer told the court that he spoke with the ATF agent many times, and that in their first conversation the agent told him that if the boy participated, he could get a reward of $15,000.
  • The other officer told the court the boy was so “focused” on the money he’d get for helping the government that he was not benefitting from his therapy.
  • The boy’s former girlfriend told the court of many conversations she had with the ATF agent, and about conversations she had with the boy about the money. She talked of specific plans he had for what he would do once he got the money, and that he would “say anything they wanted” to get it.

THE WAIT

The hearings closed in May, 2012, and final briefs were submitted in November, 2012. The wait for Greg and his family has been excrutiating. Finally, in January, we received an Order from the Court requiring Greg and his lawyers to be in court today for his ruling. Today we learn his fate. Stay tuned…

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