The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office will have to retry a 17 year old murder case following a ruling by Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III yesterday that defendant Greg Brown was wrongfully convicted when the State failed to disclose Brady material in his case. (Read a primer on the Brady v. Maryland decision here.)
Brown was charged with second-degree murder, arson and conspiracy for the Bricelyn Street fire, notorious because it resulted in the deaths of three Pittsburgh firefighters. Brown was found guilty by a jury in 1997 and sentenced to three consecutive life prison terms.
In a ruling handed down February 19, Judge Williams found that, “the evidence shows material evidence favorable to Greg Brown was not disclosed by the prosecution and so much prejudice ensued that this Court does not have confidence in the jury’s decision.” (p. 17 of the Court’s opinion.) The testimony of Keith Wright, a neighbor of Brown’s at the time of the incident who placed Brown at the scene of the crime, and Ibrahim Abdullah, who provided evidence of a confession, was elicited through the promise of a monetary reward, and this information was never disclosed to Brown’s defense attorneys.
Keith Wright did not speak to law enforcement on the night of the Bricelyn Street fire, but rather months afterward when the investigation had hit “somewhat of a standstill.” (p. 18) News of a reward for anyone who came forward with information about the fire was issued to the public, and Wright came out of the woodwork. The lead investigator in the case, Jason Wick, interviewed Wright who told him that Brown was at the scene of the crime while the fire was burning. This was the first evidence the state had received that placed Brown at the scene. The Court found that at some point between Brown’s grand jury appearance and trial, the topic of money was discussed with Wright. And that those discussions were “purposefully not disclosed by Jason Wick to the prosecution’s legal team.” (p. 19) Wright ultimately received $10,000 from the reward fund for his role in the case.
According to Judge Williams, this evidence was important impeachment material because Wright’s testimony at trial undercut Brown’s alibi defense. If it had made it known to the jury that Wright stood to profit from his testimony, Brown’s defense might have better withstood the damaging testimony. The Court writes, “For such an important witness as Keith Wright was, the non-disclosure of information, that most certainly would have negatively impacted his credibility, does not instill in this Court the necessary confidence that Greg Brown received a fair trial.” (p. 23)
Though it was the state’s investigator rather than trial prosecutors who withheld the impeachment evidence, the Court still faults the prosecution’s legal team for an “egregious lapse in judgment”. Judge Williams says that during federal habeas proceedings when the issue of financial incentives came up, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office failed to ask “those with knowledge a simple question – were these 2 witnesses paid. Perhaps, he did not ask for fear of the answer.” (p.20)
The Court also places blame on U.S. Attorney Shaun Sweeney, who was cross-designated to help prosecute the case and knew by the time of federal habeas that the witnesses had been paid, and yet did not disclose that to his co-counsel.
The second witness, Ibrahim Abdullah, was a former roommate of Brown’s when he was being held in a juvenile detention facility. When fifteen year-old Abdullah was contacted by investigator Jason Wicks, he first refused to get involved in the case but changed his mind when a possible reward of $15,000 was mentioned. (p. 24) The amount was later reduced to $5,000, which Abdullah eventually received. Abdullah’s testimony was key to the State’s case since law enforcement had no other statements from the defendant about the fire. Though the Court is clear that the lead prosecutor in the case, Marc Clark, was never made aware of this evidence, it contends,
“[T]he prosecution team is not a 1 or 2 man band. It is a full blown orchestra. A critical member of the prosecution ensemble was the lead investigator from ATF, Jason Wick. He was the prosecutor’s right hand man. he was the case agent. His presence was noted during the entire trial. he heard Keith Wright and Ibrahim Abdullah testify… Not once, did he inform either prosecutor that Wright and Abdullah were not entirely accurate with their testimony.” (p.28)
Therefore, the Court found, the promises of payment made to these two key witnesses would have undermined their credibility in front of the jury. The fact that these promises were never disclosed to defense counsel is a violation of Brady and requires a new trial. The Court also found that state failed to correct false testimony when Abdullah and Wright told the jury that they had received nothing in exchange for their testimony.
The State is appealing the Court’s decision and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office has confirmed it will refile charges against Brown.