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Grand jury re-indicts Budget Inn fire suspect

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

On Wednesday, a Clayton County grand jury re-indicted Sheree Murphy, a homeless woman accused of setting the June 7, 2007 Budget Inn fire which killed five family members in Riverdale.

Only a day before, a Superior Court judge dismissed the original indictment, on the grounds that it was poorly worded.

The new indictment includes 23 counts against Murphy, one fewer than the original indictment. While one charge of first-degree arson, and multiple charges of malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated battery remain, a misdemeanor charge of simple battery was scratched from Wednesday's indictment.

"We took it out from the point of view that it was a misdemeanor, and it didn't matter much in the grand scheme of things," said executive assistant district attorney John Turner. He said the district attorney's office would push for the death penalty.

"We have additional evidence that makes our case stronger," than in the original indictment, said Turner. "We would have asked for the death penalty, based on the number of victims, but we didn't in the beginning, because our evidence was largely circumstantial."

Turner said that within "the last 30 days," a witness serving jail time in the Clayton County Jail, alongside Murphy, testified that Murphy admitted to her that she committed the crimes.

"In the beginning, we only had one witness who testified that [Murphy] testified to her that she was going to burn it up," said Turner. "[Murphy] told the witness what she did that day and we didn't have that in the beginning.

"I think we have a believable witness," Turner added. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have changed our tact."

Steve Frey, the lawyer defending Murphy, said he is disappointed that Murphy will not be tried in June as originally scheduled. However, as death penalty cases are handled in Unified Appeals, he said the "case will be much more structured and regulated than it was previously.

"The punishment is much more grave than it was before, but I still look forward to defending her," said Frey. "I still feel as confident about it as I ever have. There is no tangible evidence linking her to the fire."

Frey said that his client, Murphy, is aware the district attorney will ask for the death penalty upon her arraignment. However, Frey said Murphy is "ready to go to trial.

"She has never wavered in her innocence and she has demanded that this case be tried as soon as humanly possible," Frey said.