A homeless woman, facing the death penalty in the 2007 fire deaths of five people, broke down in tears Tuesday as her defense attorney presented his opening statement to a Clayton County Superior Court jury.
Sheree Dionne Murphy, 45, is charged with multiple counts of murder, and aggravated battery, in the deaths of five family members trapped in a blazing Riverdale motel. She's been held in the Clayton County Jail since her arrest in 2007.
Murphy wept as defense attorney Steven Frey, of Jonesboro, told jurors she is innocent.
"She too, has family," he said. "She's a mother, a sister. She was homeless, crippled with poverty and addiction. She was a helpless target. This fire was a tragedy, but the greater tragedy would be to convict an innocent person for a crime the state can't even prove happened."
But Clayton County prosecutors said Murphy set the fire that killed Shikita Jones, 32; her children, Devon Butler, Jr., 11, and Desha Butler, 10; Jones' fiancé, Fred Colston, Jr., 26, and her uncle, Melvin Jones, 43. Four other people were also injured.
Assistant District Attorney Katie Powers told jurors that witnesses heard Murphy threaten to "burn this [expletive] down."
Police said Murphy poured a flammable liquid on a pile of mattresses and set it on fire, because she was mad at her drug dealer, who lived at the motel.
Jones and her family were found huddled together in the motel room's bathtub. They had turned on the shower in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the fire at bay.
Frey told jurors that he will present experts who will testify that the fire started accidentally in the attic, and was not deliberately set. He said a $10,000 reward offered for information leading to the arrest of the person responsible for the alleged arson brought out "desperate people motivated by their own selfish desire."
"That gives someone 10,000 reasons to lie," Frey said. "This money produced a long list of predictable stories that are totally inconsistent with the known facts."
If the jury convicts Murphy of murder, the trial will enter the punishment phase. Jurors will then decide if she should face life in prison, or the death penalty.
Superior Court Judge Geronda Carter is presiding over the trial. She issued a gag order and denied requests from the media for cameras in the courtroom.
Murphy is being held without bond in the Clayton County Jail.