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New Evidence Suggests Teenager's Conviction in Triple Homicide Arson Case Is Based on Junk Science

New evidence supports Greg Brown’s claim that he did not commit arson or murder.

By the time a 1995 fire was brought under control in the downtrodden Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, three firefighters had died and a family was left homeless. Within hours, an investigator said he suspected arson.

But it would take agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) 14 months to charge Greg Brown Jr., then 17, of conspiring with his mother, Darlene Buckner, to douse gasoline on the basement floor of their Bricelyn Street home and set it on fire with a rolled up newspaper. ATF agents determined Brown and Buckner conspired to ignite the fire so their family could cash in on a $20,000 insurance policy.

A jury ultimately found the prosecution’s arson theory plausible enough to convict Brown of murder in the deaths of Captain Thomas Brooks and firefighters Mark Kolenda and Patty Conroy, the first female firefighter in American history to die in the line of duty.

Brown was sent to prison for life.

Though Buckner was acquitted of the murders, she served a probationary sentence for insurance fraud, which caused her to lose her nursing license.

While Brown has steadfastly maintained his innocence since he was locked down, he has lost every appeal he’s filed. Recently however, two major issues emerged in the high-profile case.

First, a noted fire dynamics expert who conducted an exhaustive origin and cause study of the Bricelyn Street fire, said the blaze was accidental and the fire dynamics theories used to convict Brown amount to nothing more than “junk science.”

Secondly, the testimony of a star witness who prosecuting attorneys relied on to convict Brown has come into question.

At trial, this witness said he overheard Brown admit in conversation on four separate occasions that he set the fire. Investigators from ATF insisted that his testimony was not coerced by the promise of reward money.

In two recent recorded interviews, that witness said he was offered up to $15,000 for his testimony by an ATF investigator, and that he was eventually paid $5,000 in cash, even though prosecutors refused to discuss the payments until they were recently verified through a U.S. Freedom of Information Act request.

In recent interviews, the star witness contradicted portions of his trial testimony and claimed that agents put so much pressure on him that he “had no choice” about whether or not to testify against Brown. His story changed nearly every time anyone asked him about implicating Brown in the fire. In the recorded interviews he said he was coerced by ATF agents.

Meanwhile, the mother of two of the star witness’ babies – who was later so severely battered by him that she had to leave the state – said in a recent interview that the witness repeatedly admitted he lied about Brown’s confession because he was promised money and freedom by ATF agents.

On May 11, some of those findings caused Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph Williams III to reopen Brown’s case, establishing a briefing schedule for an appeal, and setting the stage for a hearing to consider whether new evidence is enough to merit a new trial.

Since then, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and David Fawcett, of Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney, a Pittsburgh-based law firm, have agreed to represent Brown for free. On Sept. 17, 2010, they filed a 38-page petition requesting a reversal of Brown’s conviction and either his release or a new trial. They also asked for an evidentiary hearing on the new evidence that has surfaced.

“These materials demonstrate the untrustworthiness of the only evidence presented at Petitioner’s trial which implicated him directly in the fire that occurred on Feb. 14, 1995, when he was 17 years of age, and they undermine any confidence in the integrity of the verdict,” the petition states.

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