PITTSBURGH — An appeals court has upheld a western Pennsylvania judge's decision to grant a new trial to a man in the deaths of three Pittsburgh firefighters two decades ago.
Gregory Brown Jr., 37, was sentenced to three life terms in the February 1995 fire that killed 42-year-old Capt. Thomas Brooks, 27-year-old Marc Kolenda and 43-year-old Patricia Conroy.
Allegheny County prosecutors alleged that he set the blaze for insurance money. Judge Joseph Williams ordered a new trial a year ago, saying prosecutors hadn't revealed that two witnesses in the case were paid reward money.
Two Pennsylvania Superior Court judges ruled Friday that the defendant had been "thwarted by the commonwealth's repeated denials that a reward had even been paid." A third judge dissented, saying the issue of reward money was well-known in the community.
Prosecutors argued that the reward money issue wasn't material to the case and there was still sufficient evidence to convict Brown without it, but the court majority disagreed.
"Given the circumstantial and sparse nature of the evidence incriminating (the defendant), evidence of (his) confession/admission was by far the strongest evidence against him," the judges ruled. "Indeed, the complexion of the case against (the defendant) changes dramatically in the absence of this evidence."
The district attorney's office hasn't announced a decision on an appeal, which could be made to the full Superior Court panel or to the state Supreme Court.
Brown was convicted of second-degree murder, arson and insurance fraud in the fire on Valentine's Day in 1995. The firefighters suffocated when their air tanks ran out as they tried to grope their way out of the rapidly burning home.
Prosecutors alleged that the defendant poured a half-gallon of gasoline on some clothes in the basement of the four-story home in hopes of collecting $20,000 in insurance money for a down payment on a new home. His mother, Darlene Buckner, was convicted of insurance fraud and placed on probation.