New Evidence Suggests Teenager's Conviction in Triple Homicide Arson Case Is Based on Junk Science
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Wright’s mother, Margaret McCord, in an interview with the Innocence Institute, said she was offered a reward – which she said she turned down – and contacted on multiple occasions by ATF’s Wick. She could not confirm or deny that her son – who was living on the third floor of their Bricelyn Street home while she and her daughter lived on the ground floor – saw Brown standing on the street as the fire raged.
“I don’t know what he saw,” she said. “But I know we were offered rewards for what we said.”
McCord said she did not know whether her son received any payments, and indicated she has not been in contact with him for years.
The ATF cause and origin findings, the confessions from jailhouse snitches, and the singular testimony from Wright was enough to file charges against Brown, which would be brought against the teenager and his mother on April 12, 1996, more than a year after the fire.
The pounding on Darlene Buckner’s front door that morning interrupted her as she was enjoying a cup of coffee and preparing breakfast for her two young sons as they watched Sesame Street. The pounding startled her boys, so she was already anxious when she opened the door to find uniformed police officers ready to read her Miranda rights. As an officer clasped handcuffs on her wrists and tossed a hooded sweatshirt over her face, Buckner was ushered out the front door.
“I remember asking [the female officer] if I could grab my purse,” Buckner recalled. “And she said, ‘Where you’re going, you won’t need a purse.’”
In the few seconds it took for officers to walk her from the front porch to the waiting cruiser, she worried about her two wailing young sons: Where would police take them? And would someone notify her husband?
Then, Buckner remembered the hooded sweatshirt that was obscuring her face and shook it off.
“Criminals needed to hide,” she said. “And I didn’t do anything wrong.”
At that time, Buckner didn’t know agents were also taking Brown into custody from the Montana high school where he had studied while living with an uncle after his release from the juvenile offender boot camp.
Darlene Buckner would be confined until after her acquittal.
Her son would never walk the streets again.
Trial and Error
The joint trial for Buckner and Brown began in January 1997 with a court gallery packed with onlookers, many of whom were uniformed Pittsburgh firefighters sitting at attention in a sign of solidarity and mourning.
“It was as if they were there to see that justice was done that somehow justify the deaths of three fine firefighters,” defense lawyer Lindsay said.
The prosecution opened its case by calling two of the firefighters who responded to the Bricelyn blaze.
They testified about the progression of the fire and outlined suppression efforts. Captain Edward J. Wyland, now retired, was the fourth firefighter trapped in the Buckner home during the suppression efforts and the last to speak to Brooks, Kolenda, and Conroy. He testified about the frantic last moments of consciousness he and the other firefighters shared in the house.
He said he encountered Kolenda, who said: “Eddie, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,” before Wyland said he “felt Kolenda collapse.”
“Sweet God in heaven, please save our souls because we’re all going to die in here!”
These were Conroy’s last words, Wyland said.
In an exclusive interview, Wyland said he knew his purpose at trial.