The father of a man, who died in a Riverdale motel fire, took the stand in Clayton County Superior Court Monday morning, and pleaded with the woman convicted in the deaths to confess her sins and repent.
Fred Colston, Sr., looked directly at Sheree Dionne Murphy as he gave his impact statement. Colston's son, Fred Colston, Jr., died June 6, 2007, in a fire at the Budget Inn in Riverdale. Colston's fiancee, Shikita Jones, 32, her children, Devon Butler, Jr., 11, and Desha Butler, 10, also died. Jones' uncle, Melvin Jones, 43, died with the family, huddled together in a small bathroom, waiting in vain for rescue.
Murphy, 45, was convicted Dec. 13 of five counts of felony murder, arson and aggravated battery. Judge Geronda Carter sentenced Murphy, Monday, to five consecutive life sentences. Clayton Executive Assistant District Attorney Jason Green, who prosecuted the case with Assistant District Attorney Katie Powers, said Murphy will have to serve 30 years before being considered for parole.
Prosecutors said Murphy was angry at Fred Colston, Jr., who occasionally sold her drugs, and had threatened to burn down the motel where he lived with Jones and her children. Melvin Jones was visiting the family at the time of his death.
Colston told Murphy to seek forgiveness. "It's time, Sheree Murphy, for you to confess your wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness for the sins you've committed," said Colston. "I told the family to reject vengeance. Let God be your God. God works, if you work the word. Trust God and the word of the Lord."
Colston told Murphy that remorse was necessary for her to enjoy Heaven. "You'll be able to find your victims in Heaven and tell them you stopped living in darkness, because on Jan. 30, 2012, you stopped your faults and confessed your faults and began living for Jesus."
Fred Jr.'s mother, Vernita Colston, also addressed Murphy from the stand. "Every day, I think I'm going to get a call from my son," she said. "I miss him so much. Sometimes, I don't know if I'm coming or going. I talk to him. He's here, I see him in his blue jeans and white T-shirt. I can see Shikita in heels, she always loved heels."
Murphy's sister, Carolyn Cain, and second-oldest daughter, Jawanda Murphy, asked Judge Geronda Carter to show her mercy. Cain insists her sister is innocent.
"Sheree is a very loving person," said Cain. "She has six kids of her own, and she'd never do anything like this. Her youngest daughter is 13 and cries when she goes to sleep and cries when she wakes up. God is with you, hold to God's unchanging hand."
Jawanda Murphy burst into tears. "I miss my mom," she said. "She has six kids herself who have been taken away from their mom. I love her, that's all."
As her daughter left the stand, Sheree Murphy cried and pounded the table several times with a balled fist.
After recommending life without the possibility of parole, Green called the fire "horrendous" and "gruesome." He scoffed at her drug addiction as an excuse for her actions. "Whether you are on drugs or not, she knew this was an occupied motel," said Green. "It is a miracle more people weren't killed. It could have been more catastrophic."
When Green made the point that Murphy's family can still visit her in jail, Fred Colston, Sr., left the courtroom.
"They have the ability to continue that relationship," said Green. "They can send cards, photos, care packages. They can go on. It may not be as rich a relationship, but they can still enjoy each other. This family doesn't have that option. The only option his mother has is the vision of her son in jeans and a white T-shirt."
One of Murphy's six defense attorneys, Emily Gilbert, maintained Murphy’s innocence, but offered the mitigating circumstances that shaped her life. "The defense team has very strong feelings about this case," she said. "I want to tell you about our client and my friend. She grew up in a society that was rife with violence and ravaged by drugs, crack cocaine."
Murphy was born in 1966 at Grady Hospital to an alcoholic mother whose three older children lived with their grandmother, she said. Her father was not listed on her birth certificate or involved in her life. Murphy grew up in the shadow of that hospital, in projects sharing the same name. She was molested, placed in foster care for a while and practically raised herself.
"Her sister's husband gave her crack cocaine when she was 20," said Gilbert. "She spiraled into drugs and prostitution. The Budget Inn was her home. She moved to Clayton County in 2004 for a new start, but continued drugs, and prostituted herself. She had seven kids but the first died a couple of months after birth, probably because of a lack of prenatal care."
Gilbert said the "what-ifs" in Murphy's life are endless. "She takes full responsibility for where she is today, but we maintain her innocence," she said.
Murphy took the stand to apologize to the families, but again denied she did anything wrong. “My heart goes out to y'all," she said. "Fred and Shikita and the kids were my friends and I didn't take their lives. I wish you would believe in me."
She spoke to Shikita Jones' mother, Alma Jones. Alma Jones had cried while she testified to the loss of her relatives. "Melvin Jones was my baby brother, Shikita was my only child. I lost two of my grandchildren," said Jones. "I lost my entire family. It took a lot from me, affected me in a lot of ways. I leave it up to God."
Murphy implored Alma Jones to remember her the way she was before the fire.
"Miss Alma, you know me, we spent many, many days together," she said. "You know my character and you know what type of person I am. They said the motive was Fred wouldn't front my drugs. I was an easy target because of the drug use. I never hurt anybody. I did not take y'all's families from y'all. I lost people, too, because they were my friends."
After Carter pronounced sentence, Murphy returned to her jail cell. Fred Colston, Sr., approached Cain and hugged her. Cain said she welcomed the encounter.
"I had been wanting to talk to the family, and they came to me," she said. "There are no hard feelings. I think my sister is going through this because of drugs. She needs to hold on to God's hands. God will work somehow. Wait for the finish."