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DA appeals judge's refusal to step down in retrial in 1995 arson that killed 3 firefighters


PITTSBURGH — Prosecutors have appealed a judge's refusal to step down from the retrial of a man charged with setting a fire that killed three Pittsburgh firefighters two decades ago.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Williams III said the district attorney's office hadn't backed up allegations that he would be unfair in the case of 38-year-old Gregory Brown Jr. Brown was sentenced to three life terms in the 1995 fire but won a new trial on the grounds that prosecutors hadn't revealed that two witnesses in the case were promised reward money.

The district attorney's office alleged that the judge was biased against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a prospective expert witness, saying he had written an angry letter when questioned by an ATF agent investigating a carpet store fire in 2004 while Williams was an attorney representing the owner. The judge, however, said they had failed to provide sufficient evidence of bias, prejudice or unfairness. Defense attorneys opposed the motion.

Prosecutors said in their appeal to Superior Court that the judge's denial of their recusal motion has "substantially handicapped" prosecution of the case.

Defense attorney Jason Hazlewood said he found the appeal "disturbing." He said prosecutors provided no evidence of bias at the hearing, and feared the action would delay Brown's retrial.

"This man has been sitting in jail for the better part of two decades without the fair trial he is entitled to, and it doesn't seem to bother anyone but us," Hazlewood said.

Prosecutors alleged that Brown poured a half-gallon of gasoline on some clothes in the basement of the four-story home and started the blaze in hopes of collecting $20,000 in insurance money for a down payment on a new home. Authorities said Capt. Thomas Brooks, 42, Marc Kolenda, 27, and Patricia Conroy, 43, suffocated when their air tanks ran out as they tried to escape the rapidly burning home.

Brown, who was 17 at the time of the fire, was convicted of second-degree murder, arson and insurance fraud before the convictions were reversed on appeal. His mother, Darlene Buckner, was convicted of insurance fraud and placed on probation.

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