Innocence Institute alumni gets new trial
By Katie Castelli
Published: Tuesday, March 18, 2014
A man sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of three firefighters in 1995 during a fire at his family’s home will have the chance at another trial.
Judge Joseph Williams III said Feb. 19 his consideration of an appeal by Greg Brown was based on the credibility of witnesses in a post-trial hearing.
“Greg Brown, you asked me for a new trial, I am going to give you a new trial,” said Judge Williams during the hearing.
Research on the witnesses was credited to Point Park students and Billy Moushey, director of the University’s disbanded Innocence Institute.
On February night in 1995, a fire began in a Bricelyn Street house that trapped four firefighters inside. While one firefighter was rescued, the fire caused the death of Thomas Brooks, Marc Kolenda and Patty Conroy. Greg Brown was later accused of arson, and was convicted for three life sentences a year after the incident.
The Brown case was worked on by anywhere from 50 to 70 Point Park University students over the span of a ten year period, which began in 2002.
Two graduate students, Amanda Gillooly and Matt Stroud, were the primary student writers in the Greg Brown article published by the Innocence Institute, which contributed to the reevaluation of Brown’s case. The students were under the direction of Moushey, professor of journalism at Point Park University. The Innocence Institute ended in 2012.
“We retraced the whole case searching for information,” said Moushey.
During the hearing, the Allegheny County Common Pleas judge said his consideration was because evidence emerged that the witnesses were paid thousands of dollars for their testimonies, which was never heard by his jury.
During a five-minute hearing, Judge Williams ruled the believability of the witnesses were questionable that it violated Brown's right to a fair trial.
After 19 years in prison, Brown in his shirt and dress pants with his hands and legs shackled, smiled broadly to his family members as he was led out of the courtroom.
“There is hope here,” said David Fawcett, a member of Brown’s defense team. “There is hope for justice.”
The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office announced that it would appeal against the ruling just minutes after it was decided by Judge Williams.
Brown’s lawyers asked about possible hidden payments to witnesses throughout and after the trial process after discovering fliers offering money posted throughout Homewood. The prosecution denied all claims.
It was discovered, however, that thousands of dollars were being paid to the witnesses, which was discovered after students of Point Park requested information of the ATF.
“We repeatedly asked people and they did not come clean on that until we got a Freedom of Information request,” Moushey said.
Once payment was discovered, the government stated that none of the information would have changed the jury’s verdict on the case and Brown was barred from bringing an appeal in the first place.
In light of new information, Judge Williams decided to reopen the case two years ago. During a hearing that occurred last year, Judge Williams focused on the interactions of the two witnesses from Brown’s trial in particular.
“Not only did I listen to what was said… but how it was said,” Judge Williams said during the hearing.
In a 35-page opinion, Judge Williams stated that ATF investigator Jason Wick got witnesses to testify in exchange for money, knowing it would change the accuracy of their testimony and the Defense’s ability to properly cross examine them.
“They were overzealous in their zeal to find a culprit here,” Fawcett said. “For years this was never disclosed.”
According to Judge Williams, failure to disclose made Greg Brown’s trial “so unfair that the court does not have confidence in the guilt determination.”
After years of research with students, Moushey expressed confidence in the judge’s decision.
“I had tears of my eyes when that came down because I was so proud of my students,” Moushey said. “It’s a great tribute to the students of Point Park University.”