I hadn’t seen Greg Brown Jr. since 1995, before he was sentenced to life in prison for three murders. I graduated from high school that year and left our neighborhood to go to college and become a functional adult. Greg was on a different path: he would spend the next two decades battling police, the Allegheny County District Attorney and the ATF to save his own life and lamenting what it could have been.
Greg’s decades of missed milestones underscore the tragedy of wrongful convictions and the impact of the country’s awful carceral system on Black communities. His story might not even be the worst example of a wrongfully convicted Black man in Pittsburgh. Greg doesn’t fit that bill anymore—he was exonerated after 20 years in prison—but he’s told me he knows others inside with similar stories. Perhaps his own words to a local TV station right after his release put it best.
“I just got lucky. I got the right legal team behind me. Others don’t. So, you know, it’s bittersweet.”
The bitter part started on the night of Valentine’s Day in 1995. A fire broke out at Greg’s family’s house. His mother says she and him were at a grocery store; she even had a receipt for what they bought. Greg’s stepfather, infant brother, step-sister and niece were in the house when the fire started. It was 15 degrees outside and they all escaped into the frigid air while firefighters tried to save the house. A collapsed stairwell trapped firefighters Thomas Brooks, Patricia Conroy and Marc Kolenda, inside. They died.
There was no physical evidence tying Greg to setting the fire. But Greg’s house was in Homewood, a mostly poor, almost exclusively Black neighborhood where in the mid 90's, the drug trade and gang violence were at their peak. Greg and I attended Westinghouse High School together. We weren’t best friends but were definitely cool. Westinghouse sits in the center of what was then a neighborhood at war. Getting to and from school through a maze of invisible territorial lines and aggressive cops were part of what we had to do to get a cap and gown.
Neither of us was old enough to grasp the larger context of it all—decades of trade policy decimated blue-collar cities like Pittsburgh, the Reagan-era’s failed economic policies that brought a flood of drugs into our neighborhood, the Clinton-era’s tough-on-crime policies that responded with armies of abusive cops, the fact that our mothers, grandmothers and working people in the neighborhood were mostly OK with the tough-on-crime policies of the era because they just wanted to be safe getting to and from work. Before she quit to pursue Master’s and doctorate degrees, my own mother drove every night to a graveyard shift as a 911 dispatcher; she was on duty when the call came in about a fire on Bricelyn Street, at Greg’s house.
So when three firefighters died in a blaze in Homewood, a neighborhood that ate up a disproportionate amount of the city’s public safety resources, somebody had to pay. An ATF investigator labeled the fire arson, pointing to how the floor joists underneath the fallen firefighters burned as evidence that an accelerant was used.
Police worked up a theory: Greg torched his family’s house–with most of his family still inside–so they could claim a $20,000 renters insurance policy his mother had taken out.
Four months later, I graduated from Westinghouse and started my clumsy transition to adulthood. Greg had been sent to Montana to live with relatives and avoid more trouble in the neighborhood; Billings was as far away from Homewood as Saturn. More than a year after the fire, cops showed up and brought him back to Pittsburgh to be charged with three counts of second-degree murder.
At his trial, the ATF expert ran down his opinion that the fire was arson. One witness testified that Greg bragged to him about starting the fire. Another said he saw Greg standing in the cold watching his own house burn. Defense attorneys asked whether the authorities paid for their testimony. They were told no.
Greg was convicted and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole. It was 1997, two years after the fire and Greg had already been locked up since he was 17.
While Greg was locked up, his mom, stepdad and younger brothers settled into a house across the street from my mother’s. Over the next 20 years, I earned a degree, lived in seven different cities, raised two sons from birth to adulthood and started a career that took me from places like ESPN to an executive role in the mayor’s office in Atlanta. My mother died of cancer in 2013, and when I’d come home to visit, Greg’s mom, Miss Darlene, would tell me how proud she knew my mother was. Left unsaid was the frustration that her son never got the opportunity.
Greg never stopped fighting for his freedom, although as the years passed, multiple appeals were rejected. The late 90s and early 2000s evaporated along with his youth. Greg approached middle age. He’d never owned a house or a car, gotten married or had kids. His younger brothers–one of whom was in the womb the last time Greg and Miss Darlene made a late night grocery run, became adults.
He wrote letters to anyone who’d listen. In 2010, a group of journalists and lawyers with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project got one and started looking into his case. What they turned up appeared to validate what Greg, his family and people around the neighborhood had always said: he didn’t start the Bricelyn Street fire, and it’s likely no one did.
Their exhaustive story about the case was published here and it’s a must-read dissection of how wrongful convictions happen.
It detailed, among other things:
- The feds hadn’t just sent letters to Bricelyn Street neighbors offering reward money for information. They’d actually paid the witnesses who testified against Greg at his trial, just like his original defense attorneys suspected. There were even receipts for a total of $15,000 paid out, but only after Greg’s trial had ended in a conviction.
- The mother of the witness who said he saw Greg standing outside watching the house burn said in an interview that the man, who lived in her house at the time, may not have even been awake until she called him to tell him a house was on fire on their street.
- The witness who said he heard Greg confess to torching the house told reporters years later that he wasn’t only paid, but coerced by federal agents to testify. “I didn’t want to testify,” he said. “My back was against the wall.” His former girlfriend at the time was even more blunt, according to the story. “He made that information up,” she said. “He told them what they wanted to hear.”
- The “expert” ATF investigator who explained in detail that the fire must have been arson was no expert at all. He wasn’t certified in the kind of techniques used to draw his conclusions. He hadn’t done enough, based on investigative standards at the time, to eliminate all other potential causes of the fire. Maybe worst of all, the kind of “forensic science” he used in his investigation and testimony was described in a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences as being unreliable.
- An arson investigator who reviewed the case at no compensation for the Innocence Project, called the original work on the case “junk science.” “What you’ve got I’m almost sure is a big natural gas leak,” he said.
Greg’s conviction was thrown out in 2014, but he was held in jail for two more years while authorities tried to figure out ways to retry him. He was finally released on November 18, 2016. It would’ve been my mother’s 62nd birthday.
Two months later, I’d just moved back to Pittsburgh after my own two decades away. I saw Greg walking in our cul-de-sac, for the first time in two decades. It was another frigid night, dark and snowing, but I still recognized him by his walk. His shoulders still rock side to side as his feet pace forward, making him almost appear to stand still even though he was racing to beat the cold. I stopped my car in the middle of the street, hopped out and hugged him, reconnecting after half a lifetime.
He’s been home for five years now. He goes to work and tinkers with his car. If he’s around when I visit my mom’s house, we catch up. Those talks, about women, work, sports, young boys around the way who don’t know how to act, but rarely his case or his time behind the wall, are usually in a driveway or the middle of the street. We ran into each other and took a pic at our neighborhood polling place in 2019 after he voted for the first time in an election that included the primary for the local district attorney, who took office the year after Greg’s conviction and who worked closely with the US Attorney’s office to recharge him. He’s still in office.