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Woman guilty in five motel fire deaths

A homeless woman was found guilty Tuesday afternoon in the 2007 deaths of five people who died in a motel fire she set in anger.

Sheree Dionne "Queenie" Murphy, 45, faces a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole when she is sentenced next month. At minimum, Murphy can be sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.

Relatives on both sides of the case showed emotion, and Murphy wept as the verdict was read. The victims were 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.

Colston's father, Fred Colston, Sr., was satisfied with the verdict, but pointed out that the families of the victims and the defendant paid a heavy price. "I feel the verdict is fair, but there are no winners in this matter," he said. "We have all suffered a loss. Justice has prevailed, and we're now looking forward to closure. It will take time."

Colston, Jr.'s mother, Vernita Colston, said she was glad the verdict "went our way." They both said they will return in January for the sentencing.

Prosecutors maintained that Murphy set the Budget Inn Motel on fire because she was mad at her drug dealer, who lived there. They constructed a tight timeline through video surveillance cameras and witnesses who placed Murphy in the area at the moment the fire started. Assistant District Attorney Katie Powers said the jury agreed with the state's position.

"I think by their verdict the jury holds her, and her alone, fully responsible for the deaths," said Powers. "It was a complex case, and given all the circumstances, everything the jury had to review, it was a relatively quick verdict.”

After about seven hours of deliberation over two days, the jury acquitted Murphy on five counts of malice murder, but found her guilty on five counts of felony murder, and one each of arson in the first degree, aggravated battery and cruelty to children in the first degree.

Clayton County Executive Assistant District Attorney Jason Green prosecuted the case with Powers. He was not surprised the jury returned a split verdict. "They held her fully accountable, but by not finding her guilty of malice murder, they didn't think she did it with the intent of killing anyone," said Green. "We're pleased with the verdict, we feel that justice has been rendered."

Sparkle Mitchell, a cousin of Shikita Jones, and stepdaughter of Melvin Jones, said Murphy's drug addiction proved to be her downfall. "I'm glad this is over, but I am sorry for her family," said Mitchell. "Her family has suffered a loss, but we have, too. I am also sorry she was in a cracked-out part of her life when this happened. We always said from the start that whatever happened, it is God's will."

Murphy was represented by Jonesboro defense attorney Steve Frey. He was stunned by the verdict, and said he expects it to be appealed. Frey has maintained Murphy's innocence since her arrest just after the fire. Frey's expert witnesses testified that the fire started in the attic of the motel of unknown causes.

Her relatives, who attended every day of the trial, left immediately after hearing the guilty verdict. Two women had to help carry out a third, who was too distraught to walk. Jurors also left immediately, and did not talk to anyone.

Murphy was taken back to the Clayton County Jail, where she has been in custody since her arrest more than four years ago.

Fred Colston, Sr., said that the verdict was a long time in coming. "We've learned you have to wait on the Lord, and He will provide the justice," he said.