A Clayton County Superior Court jury went home Monday after deliberating for about three hours the fate of a homeless woman facing life in prison, if convicted in a 2007 Riverdale motel fire that killed five people.
Jurors left the courtroom at noon with the final words of Clayton County prosecutor Jason Green ringing in their ears, spun from a motivational quote, "What you permit, you promote."
"You have to decide if you are going to permit this, promote this," he said. "Over some crap? You hear a lot about Clayton County. This is your opportunity to tell people what Clayton County will or will not permit or promote. Find her guilty."
Sheree Dionne "Queenie" Murphy, 45, faces life in prison, if convicted of murder in the June 2007 deaths of Shikita Jones, 32; her children, Devon Butler, Jr., 11, and Desha Butler, 10; her fiancé, Fred Colston, Jr., 26, and her uncle, Melvin Jones, 43, who was in town for the couple's upcoming wedding. Four other people were also injured.
Prosecutors allege that Murphy set afire a pile of mattresses stacked behind the motel, under the family's second-floor room, in retaliation against Colston. Murphy reportedly told witnesses she was angry because Colston, allegedly a drug dealer who sold crack, disrespected her.
Green didn't shy away from Colston's reputation.
"Yes, he sold crack," said Green. "This fire caught him at that particular time in his life. We will never know where he might have ended up, because the defendant took that away from him."
The state presented a parade of witnesses who testified to hearing Murphy make threats about setting the Budget Inn Motel on fire. Starla Carr told jurors that Murphy told her, "'They don't even know why they [expletive] with. I'll set that [expletive] on fire. I ain't playing. I mean what I say. You don't know me.'"
According to testimony, Carr and Murphy smoked crack just before the motel caught fire, but Green said voluntary intoxication is not a defense.
"If you voluntarily created a condition that causes you to go out and do something, you brought that on yourself; you don't get a 'get out of jail free card,'" he said. "You don't get to kill somebody and seriously burn somebody and say, 'Oh, sorry, I was on crack.' You don't get to do that."
But defense attorney Steve Frey said his client is innocent. Frey's expert witnesses testified that the fire started in the attic of the motel, and the cause is unknown.
A broken door handle made it impossible for the family to escape their room. Colston called 911 for help, and the family went into the bathroom to await rescue. They turned on the shower and waited. The adults piled on top of the kids to protect them.
"The adults used themselves to shield the kids," said Green.
At the bottom of the pile, was Jones' daughter, Shae'Von Butler, the only survivor. The teenager had just graduated from Riverdale Middle School and was to start high school that fall. Instead, she spent two months in the hospital recovering from burns all over her body.
Butler now lives out of state with her father.
The jury began deliberating the case at about 2 p.m., Monday, and went home about 5 p.m. Judge Geronda Carter told them to return today at 8:30 a.m., to resume deliberations.