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Pittsburgh Man Convicted in Fatal Arson Seeks new Trial: Part II

In our last post, we discussed possible irregularities with the Greg Brown's conviction of arson and murder charges stemming from the 1995 Bricelyn Street fire, which claimed three firefighters' lives. Brown has been serving three consecutive life sentences in prison since 1997, but is now challenging his conviction based on newly discovered evidence.

Brown's conviction was largely based on the testimony of two key witnesses. One witness's testimony placed Brown at the scene of the fire on the night it occurred and another witness testified that Brown admitted to setting the fire. According to Brown's petition, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms announced a $15,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the Bricelyn Street fire. At trial, the prosecution never disclosed any reward or payment to the two witnesses and both witnesses testified that they were not receiving any financial benefit for testifying.

The Innocence Institute made a Freedom of Information Act request with the ATF regarding the case and the institute discovered that two witnesses were paid a total of $15,000 in August of 1998. The documents redacted the names of the witnesses, but one of the witnesses admitted to Innocence Institute investigators that he received reward money for testifying that Brown had admitted setting the fire. Greg Brown's attorney believes that by withholding the payment information, the prosecution violated Mr. Brown's due process rights.

In addition to the due process issue, Brown's petition suggests that the cause of the fire was not arson. Dr. Gerald Hurst, a fire science expert who reviewed the Innocence Institute report, is presently working on a report of the fire. Dr. Hurst believes that even though investigators eliminated the furnace as a cause of the fire, they did not eliminate the possibility that the natural gas lines in the house caused the fire. "It appeared to be a continuous Burn," Hurst said. "Natural gas would explain it brilliantly."

Mr. Brown's defense team believes that due to the tragic loss of the three firefighters' lives, investigators may have been too eager to believe the fire was arson without exhausting all of the other possibilities.

This new request for post-conviction is at the early stages and it will take some time for it to be fully resolved. An amended petition for post-conviction relief is due February 28 and the district attorney's office must respond by April 1. A hearing is scheduled for June 20, 2011.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Man convicted in fatal arson wants reopening of case," Paula Reed Ward, 12/26/2010

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