Jun. 8—A man accused of setting an East Hills fire in 1995 that killed three Pittsburgh firefighters entered a special plea in federal court on Wednesday and walked away with a sentence of time served, although he had already served 20 years in state prison.
Gregory Brown Jr., 44, entered what’s called an Alford plea, named for a 1970 Supreme Court case involving a North Carolina man, in which he pleaded guilty but still maintained his innocence.
Such pleas are extremely rare.
But U.S. District Judge David Cercone, who had presided over the state court trial 25 years ago, said it was a “just and reasonable” end to the case.
“I think that this case deserves closure,” he told a packed courtroom. “It’s time to move on.”
Brown, whose 1997 state court conviction had been overturned in 2014, was charged in 2016 in the federal system with malicious destruction of property by fire resulting in the deaths of firefighters Thomas Brooks, Patricia Conroy and Marc Kolenda.
Asked by Judge Cercone how he was pleading, Brown said, “Guilty.”
But an Alford plea is unusual in that it allowed him to say he didn’t do it while the prosecution says he did.
“It’s guilty, but I maintain my innocence,” Brown said outside the courthouse.
The judge said the plea means Brown stands convicted. But in accepting the plea, he elected to give Brown a sentence of time served as agreed to by his lawyers and the U.S. attorney’s office.
Brown, who works as a custodian, had served a couple of days in U.S. custody after his indictment in 2016 but has otherwise been free pending trial.
In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Shaun Sweeney, who was also involved in the 1990s state court case, recited a lengthy account of the government’s evidence that he said shows Brown is guilty as charged. But Brown has already spent 20 years in prison, he said, and the Alford plea “will satisfy the interests of justice.”
One of Brown’s lawyers, public defender Michael Novara, countered with an equally lengthy refutation of the government’s case, saying Brown was wrongly convicted the first time but elected to plead to avoid it happening again.
“We understand what the government says it can prove if the case went to trial, and agree that, if believed, that evidence would be sufficient for a jury to render a guilty verdict,” he said. “However, Mr. Brown is, in fact, innocent of the charged offense.”
He and two other attorneys on the case, David Fawcett and Samantha Stern, said the prosecution was built on “outmoded fire science techniques impacted by bias” on the part of an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Mr. Novara said the house fire on Bricelyn Street wasn’t an arson at all. He blamed a faulty furnace.
He also said the testimony of two key witnesses is “tainted and fundamentally unreliable.”
Both witnesses, Keith Wright and Ibrahim Abdullah, had been paid for their testimony, but the jury in the first trial never heard about those payments.
Mr. Novara said despite the fact that they were paid and his contention that they are not credible, federal prosecutors were still relying on them in the current case.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Cindy Chung said that the three firefighters were dedicated public servants who died in the line of duty.
“Today, defendant Gregory Brown acknowledged under oath that the evidence as described in court establishes his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and is sufficient to secure his conviction,” she said. “A conviction and waiver of appellate rights is important in securing justice for these public servants and their families and holds Gregory Brown responsible forever in the eyes of the law.”
Brown had lost a significant federal court decision last year when the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a retrial in federal court doesn’t violate his double jeopardy rights. That ruling upheld a previous ruling by Judge Cercone that allowed the case to proceed.
Brown and his lawyers had wanted Judge Cercone to apply an exception to the “dual-sovereignty doctrine.”
Essentially, they said, Brown shouldn’t be retried in federal court for the same crime because the state trial had been “merely a tool” of federal prosecutors.
But the appellate court ruled that retrying Brown in the federal system would only be barred if the state trial was somehow a sham. Instead, the conviction was reversed because of trial error, the circuit judges said, and so can proceed.
Brown had won a new trial in 2014 after his lawyers said he had been the victim of misconduct by prosecutors regarding the payments to the two witnesses.
Instead of taking Brown to trial in state court, the district attorney and the U.S. attorney conferred and decided to try him in U.S. District Court, bringing an indictment in 2016.
Prosecutors in state court and now in federal court maintain that Brown set the fire on Feb. 14, 1995, so that he and his mother could collect on a $20,000 renter’s insurance policy she took out shortly before the blaze.
He was found guilty on three counts of second-degree murder in February 1997.
Mr. Novara said the government’s theory of the motive, then and now, doesn’t make sense.
He questioned why Brown and his mother would risk the lives of their other family members who were in the house, including a baby and a toddler, to cash in on a $20,000 policy while “simultaneously destroying all of their worldly possessions” that were worth far more than $20,000.
Mr. Novara said that his client entered the Alford plea to avoid a life prison term if federal prosecutors took him to trial and won.
“After spending 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and having finally won his freedom,” he said, ” Mr. Brown is unwilling to take the chance that he might again be wrongfully convicted and sent back to prison for the rest of his life.”
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