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Man charged with deaths of 3 Pittsburgh firefighters now faces fed indictment | TribLIVE.com
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Man charged with deaths of 3 Pittsburgh firefighters now faces fed indictment

Matthew Santoni
| Friday, November 4, 2016 4:00 p.m
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Gregory Brown is led to the courtroom during a coroner's inquest on Friday, May 3, 1996. Brown was accused of setting his mother's house on fire, leading to the death of three Pittsburgh firefighters on Feb. 14, 1995.

A retrial of a man accused in state charges of setting a 1995 fire that killed three Pittsburgh firefighters could be moving to federal court now that a grand jury has indicted Gregory Brown Jr.

The federal grand jury indictment, returned Nov. 1 and unsealed Friday, charged Brown, 39, with malicious destruction of property by fire resulting in death.

Brown was convicted in 1997 on three Commonwealth charges of second-degree murder for the deaths of firefighters Patricia Conroy, Marc Kolenda and Capt. Thomas Brooks in a fire Feb. 14, 1995, on Bricelyn Street.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III granted Brown a new trial in 2014 based on evidence that investigators promised to pay two key witnesses but didn’t disclose that to jurors during his original trial. But Brown remains at the Allegheny County Jail on a $750,000 bond.

The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office sought to have Williams recuse himself because prosecutors said he was biased against the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and an agent they planned to use as an expert witness. As evidence, they pointed to an angry letter Williams wrote to the same agent when the agent was investigating an unrelated fire at a carpet store and Williams was representing the owner.

Williams declined to recuse himself from the Brown case, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld his decision.

“Substantial questions have been raised which undermine confidence in a retrial in state court,” said U.S. Attorney David Hickton in a statement accompanying the announcement of charges. Williams has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 8 on a motion by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office to withdraw the state case.

Hickton said state and federal investigators worked together on the Bricelyn Street fire investigation since 1995, and there was jurisdiction to bring a case in either state or federal court. It was agreed at the time that the case would be brought in state court, he said.

Jason Hazlewood, one of Brown’s attorneys, said the federal indictment and handoff was an attempt by prosecutors to further delay Brown’s retrial and keep him incarcerated. He and attorney David Fawcett had moved to have the case dismissed on double-jeopardy grounds because, they said, the state couldn’t retry the case if the first was marred by prosecutorial misconduct.

“We think it’s a bad-faith delay,” Hazle­wood said Friday. “Today was the day the Commonwealth was supposed to bring a response to our double-jeopardy motion, and instead they did this.”

Brown’s retrial before Williams was scheduled for January but likely wouldn’t happen that soon in federal court, Hazlewood said.

The law provides for a maximum total sentence of life in prison, a fine of $250,000 or both. Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the actual sentence imposed would be based upon the seriousness of the offense and the prior criminal history, if any, of the defendant.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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