New Evidence Suggests Teenager's Conviction in Triple Homicide Arson Case Is Based on Junk Science
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“[The prosecution] wanted me for the sympathy vote,” the retired fire official recalled recently. “They wanted me to make a victim impact statement at the end of the trial, but I declined.”
It was also during Wyland’s testimony that the question of water in the basement first arose. While the firemen described falling into the basement after the stairs collapsed under them, Wyland indicated that it was completely engulfed in flames. Then on cross-examination, defense attorneys quoted from an incident statement that indicated Wyland told a first responder that when he fell, there was water all over the floor from suppression efforts.
Other accounts of the fire response indicate that a hose leading down into the basement ruptured during the response, causing an inundation of water that one fireman claimed was hip-high. But the judge ruled that statement inadmissible because it was unclear who had prepared the report from which the statement was extracted.
As a result, Petraitis was never asked if basement water levels came into play during his investigation. Brown and Buckner’s defense attorneys, Lindsay, James Ecker and Sidney Sokolsky, argued that if they were allowed to pursue that line of questioning, they would have asked Petraitis what effect two feet of water would have had on his examination of the forensic evidence in the basement.
Also paramount to the prosecution’s case was the testimony about what Brown said to whom while he was in boot camp. ATF agent Jason Wick’s reports suggest he possessed written statements from Abdullah and Jesse Hughes, which detailed four occasions when Brown admitted to conspiring with his family to burn down their home for insurance money. While the handwritten statements were nearly identical, only Abdullah was called to testify. Before trial, Hughes, then confined to the State Correctional Institution at Greensburg on unrelated charges, wrote Lindsay twice, stating both times: “I don’t know nothing about [Brown’s] case.” Hughes was not a witness for the prosecution.
Abdullah – who had been in and out of the court system since he was 13 for fire-related and other crimes – testified that Brown repeatedly bragged about setting the fire while they lay in the bunks at night. Some later reports said the two only had four conversations ever. Pressed for details on the witness stand, Abdullah could recall little other than Brown told him that his family had promised him a cut of the insurance money for his part in setting the fire. Abdullah said Brown planned to use the money to purchase a car. Brown says no such exchanges ever occurred, but at trial, Abdullah testified he was not to receive money or freedom or anything else for his testimony. He said he came forward because “it seemed like the right thing to do.”
Abdullah’s testimony was damaging, even after Brown’s friend, Raoul Gibson, who was living in Charleston, S.C., testified that Wick met him at his home 650 miles from Pittsburgh with an offer. If he could get his friend to confess to the crime during a recorded telephone call, he’d reap thousands of dollars, Gibson testified.
Gibson testified he refused the offer, explaining he neither heard Brown take responsibility for the fire, nor did he believe his friend was capable of carrying out the arson. Gibson said placement in the federal witness protection program was also offered.
After Gibson’s account, he was challenged by Assistant U.S. Attorney Shawn Sweeney, who Lindsay argued in a later appeal “indignantly scoffed at” Gibson: “You think there is a fund somewhere with $7,000 that agents can just go grab and pay you?” the prosecutor asked. “Are we to understand that Jason Wick says, ‘Raoul, let’s take a walk, and I can give you $7,000 to call Greg Brown’?”