Photo by Kathy Jefcoats
U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents recognize the efforts of the Clayton County District Attorney’s Office in the recent conviction of a woman who purposely set fire to a Riverdale motel, killing five people.
Prosecutors with the Clayton County District Attorney's Office have been recognized for their efforts in helping to convict a woman in a 2007 arson fire at a Riverdale motel that killed five people.
The case against Sheree Dionne Murphy, 45, took more than four years to get to trial. It started out as a death-penalty case under a former prosecutor, but Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson took that option off the table when she took office in 2009.
Murphy was sentenced, in January, to five concurrent life sentences, after being convicted in December.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives took notice of the successful conviction, said Sonny Fields, an arson supervisor with the federal agency. Fields and other ATFE agents presented Lawson and her staff with awards during a brief ceremony, recently, in Clayton County Superior Court.
"This is the first arson case I know of to go to trial," Fields said. "Usually, we have an arsonist who gets away, and there's only property damage. This case was a big deal for us. There was a lot of effort, a lot of work that went into this."
Special Agent David Diaz concurred. "It's exciting for us to get prosecutors who actually want to prosecute a case," he said. "It was circumstantial from the get-go, but we were confident they were strong circumstances. I am impressed by what y'all did."
The case was prosecuted by assistant district attorneys, Jason Green and Katie Powers. The pair went up against a defense team of about six experts and attorneys, all fighting to exonerate Murphy.
Lead attorney, Steve Frey, maintained her innocence, even into the sentencing phase. His experts testified that the fire started in the attic of the motel, of an unknown origin. But, state experts told the jury that the blaze started with a pile of mattresses stacked behind the Budget Inn Motel, in Riverdale.
Other state witnesses testified that Murphy made threats to set the motel on fire in retaliation against her alleged drug dealer.
Fred Colston, Jr., Colston's fiancee, Shikita Jones, 32, and her children, Devon Butler, Jr., 11, and Desha Butler, 10, all died. Jones' uncle, Melvin Jones, 43, also died with the family. Their bodies were found huddled together in a small bathroom, where they had sought to escape the heat, flames and smoke.
"This was a heinous crime for an arson," said Fields. "It was a particularly gruesome crime."
Special Agent John Paul called Green and Powers "two of the best" prosecutors he's ever worked with. "It's an honor to be recognized by your peers in the community for the job you do, and the efforts you make on behalf of them," Green said. "The jury agreed with our case, and justice was served. To be recognized for that effort is beyond any expectations."
Powers said the prosecution was a team effort. "It was a cooperative effort that couldn't have been done without the ATF, and investigators put [it] together," she said.