2010-12-30 / Local & State

New Trial Sought For In 1995 Pa. Triple-fatal Fire

PITTSBURGH (AP) – A man sentenced to three life terms after being convicted of setting a western Pennsylvania fire that killed three firefighters a decade and a half ago is seeking a new trial, contending that the fire wasn’t arson and alleging that reward money may have tainted the testimony of witnesses.

A hearing is scheduled in June in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas on the appeal of 33-year-old Gregory Brown, who was convicted of second-degree murder, arson and insurance fraud in the fire on Valentine’s Day in 1995.

Prosecutors said Brown and his mother, Darlene Buckner, started the fire in the basement of their fourstory home to collect $20,000 in insurance money for a down payment on a new home. Investigators said Brown poured half a gallon of gasoline on some clothes and ignited them.

Firefighters Thomas Brooks, 42, Patricia Conroy, 43, and Marc Kolenda, 27, suffocated when their air tanks ran out as they tried to grope their way out of the rapidly burning home. Buckner was convicted of insurance fraud and placed on probation.

During Brown’s 1997 trial, defense attorneys said the government should have told jurors about reward money and said which witnesses, if any, were paid. In court documents, Allegheny County prosecutors said the witnesses had come forward before the reward was posted.

The petition for a new trial, citing an investigation by the Innocence Institute of Point Park University in Pittsburgh, said the witnesses were paid $5,000 and $10,000.

The defense is also challenging the arson finding, saying all possible causes were not considered.

Gerald Hurst, a fire investigator from Austin, Texas who has been involved in the case for several years on behalf of the defense, said he believes the fire was sparked accidentally from natural gas. Hurst said one firefighter reported seeing flames shooting horizontally in the basement, which would indicate a gas leak.

Mike Manko, a spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors will respond in court documents.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Williams III is to hear arguments in the case in June. An amended petition for post-conviction relief from the defendant is due Feb. 28, and the district attorney’s office must file a response by the end of April.

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