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Woman arraigned in deadly, 2007 motel fire

Photo by Linda Looney-Bond
Priya Lakhi, an attorney with the Georgia Capital Defenders Office (from left), and defendant, Sheree Murphy, took part in an arraignment hearing in Clayton County Superior Court on Friday.

Photo by Linda Looney-Bond Priya Lakhi, an attorney with the Georgia Capital Defenders Office (from left), and defendant, Sheree Murphy, took part in an arraignment hearing in Clayton County Superior Court on Friday.

By Linda Looney-Bond

lbond@news-daily.com

Sheree Dionne Murphy, 47, pleaded not guilty in Clayton County Superior Court Friday, to charges in the deaths of five people, killed in a 2007 Riverdale motel fire.

Murphy appeared before Superior Court Judge Geronda Carter, in what prosecutors say is a death-penalty case. She is accused of setting a fire at a Budget Inn Motel, located at 709 King Road in Riverdale, on June 7, 2007. Five people -- including four members of one family -- died in the blaze.

Killed in the fire were: Shikita Jones, 32; her children, Devon Butler, Jr., 11, and Desha Butler, 10; Fred Colston, Jr., 26, who was Jones' fiance, and Melvin Jones, 43, who was the uncle of Shikita Jones. Four other people were also injured in the fire.

Murphy faces five counts of murder, five counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated battery, one count of arson, one count of battery, and one count of cruelty to children.

Murphy's attorney, Steve Frey, said attorneys now have 60 days to file motions in the case. "There are a great deal of motions pertaining only to death-penalty cases," Frey said.

"We ... expect to file a motion to ask the court to dismiss the case, for Ms. Murphy's constitutional right to a speedy trial," he said.

Frey said Murphy has been in the Clayton County Jail for almost two years.

"Because this is a death-penalty case, the [Georgia] Supreme Court will review -- prior to trial -- any rulings on motions," he said.

Frey maintains that the prosecution has no proof that his client is guilty. "We've alleged all along that there was no proof. There's been a hearing in the matter. The case was bound over. In a probable cause hearing, the standard for probable cause is a very low standard. It is certainly nowhere near reasonable doubt," he said.

Several of Murphy's family members attended Friday's arraignment. "I hate to see her in this situation, because she's not a bad young lady," said Murphy's sister, Carolyn Cain, of Atlanta.

When asked how her sister was doing, Cain said: "She's doing very well, knowing that she's not guilty."

Murphy was reportedly homeless at the time of the motel fire in 2007. During a press conference following Friday's hearing, Cain was asked how she responds to allegations that Murphy was a prostitute and a drug user.

Attorney Frey answered instead: "Ms. Murphy, in June of '07, was living in circumstances that were very unfortunate. Ms. Murphy -- a woman down on her luck -- had to do things that she's ashamed of to make money, to provide a living, to provide a home over her head.

"I think the evidence will show that Ms. Murphy abused cocaine. That is not something that we've tried to hide from," Frey said. "But, we believe that that alone certainly doesn't make her guilty of the crimes for which she is charged," he said.

During Friday's hearing, Laura Murphree, of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, represented the prosecution. She could not be reached by phone, following the hearing, for comment Friday afternoon.

Frey said he anticipates that the case will not be tried before next summer.