United States v. Brown, No. 20-1734 (3d Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
In 1995, firefighters responded to a fire at a house where Brown, age 17, lived with family members. Three firefighters died when a staircase collapsed. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) opened an arson investigation and offered a $15,000 reward. Wright’s testimony undermined Brown’s alibi. Abdullah testified that Brown later confessed that he had started the fire. The prosecution’s witnesses denied receiving payment or having been promised payment in exchange for their testimony. The state court jury convicted Brown, who was sentenced to three consecutive terms of life imprisonment.
Brown filed unsuccessful post-sentence motions concerning payment to witnesses. In 2001, Brown unsuccessfully sought federal habeas relief. Years later, Brown filed a petition under Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), alleging newly-discovered evidence based on an expert opinion about the cause of the fire. In response to an FOIA request, ATF provided canceled checks showing it had made payments of $5,000 and $10,000 in 1998 relating to the fire. Abdullah acknowledged receiving $5,000 from ATF after Brown’s trial; Wright acknowledged receiving $10,000. The PCRA court found that Brown’s claims about the prosecution’s nondisclosure of the witnesses’ rewards satisfied exceptions to the PCRA’s time-bar and granted Brown a new trial.
Meanwhile, a federal grand jury indicted Brown for the destruction of property by fire resulting in death, 18 U.S.C. 844(i). The state court dismissed the state charges. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of a motion to dismiss the federal indictment. Retrying a defendant because the conviction was reversed for trial error is not second jeopardy. The court declined to consider an exception to the dual sovereignty doctrine, under which a state crime is not “the same offense” as a federal crime, even if for the same conduct.