THE CASE: On February 14, 1995, the City of Pittsburgh suffered a tremendous loss when 3 firefighters died while trying to put out a fire at a home on Bricelyn Street. Three families lost fathers, sons, a mother and daughter. Within hours of the flames being put out, and without having conducted a complete investigation into accidental causes, the ATF determined the fire started in the basement, and that it was arson. Although 13 samples were sent to Washington to test for possible accelerants used to set the fire, only 2 came back positive for the presence of gasoline (not surprising, as there was a gas-powered lawn mower in the basement). Ten months later, with no evidence to support any arrests, ATF offered a $15,000 reward for anyone with information about who may have set the fire. A week later, a neighbor walked in to ATF offices, saying that he saw Greg Brown, a 17-year old who lived at the house, outside the home before the fire trucks arrived. A few months later, a bunkmate of Greg’s told ATF that Greg told him he’d set the fire. With no other evidence of arson, Greg was prosecuted and convicted and is serving 3 consecutive life sentences for setting the fire and causing the deaths of the firefighters.
Journalists from the Innocence Institute began looking into Greg’s case, and discovered some very disturbing information. First, Gerald Hurst, a leading expert in fire dynamics, reviewed all of the materials from the case and determined that the fire was not likely arson, but the result of a natural gas leak. Then, the journalists learned that 2 years after the trial, ATF paid 2 of their witnesses cash: one received $5000, and the other $10,000. As the trial was ongoing, the government denied that any witnesses were receiving anything in exchange for their testimony. One of those witnesses—Greg’s former bunkmate—told the journalists that he had a deal to get $15,000 but only got $5,000, confirming at least one of the payments.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project agreed to represent Greg in his quest for a new trial. With local counsel Dave Fawcett of Reed Smith, the Project filed a Petition for a New Trial.
Judge Williams ordered a full evidentiary hearing for Greg, where we presented witnesses who confirmed that when they testified against Greg, despite their testimony to the contrary, they had an expectation they would receive payment for their assistance. Judge Williams ordered a new trial, declaring “Mr. Brown, I believe your witnesses.” Within 25 minutes of the judge’s ordering a new trial, the Commonwealth filed a Notice of Appeal to the Superior Court. The court affirmed Judge Williams’ decision. When the case returned to Judge Williams to be listed for trial, the District Attorney filed a motion requiring Judge Williams to recuse himself. After Judge Williams denied the motion, the Commonwealth appealed that decision to Superior Court. When the appellate courts upheld Judge Williams’ decision, the case was again remanded for trial. Within a month, the District Attorney filed charges against Greg in federal court rather than proceed in front of Judge Williams.