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Jury deliberating arson-murder case

Attorneys spar during trial's closing arguments

POSTED: February 25, 2012 9:00 a.m.
 

Jury deliberations will resume Monday in the case against two people charged with a 2010 house fire that killed a man in south Forsyth.

Jill Smith and Peter Delaney face one count each of murder, felony murder and first-degree arson. They pleaded not guilty to the charges in March.

The trial began Feb. 15, with the case going to the jury Friday afternoon.

Smith and Delaney, who testimony revealed were having an affair, are accused of killing Smith’s 37-year-old husband, Michael, in the October 2010 blaze at the Smiths’ Kennemore Drive home.

Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn reminded jurors of testimony that Michael Smith had made plans for the next day that included going to a party with some friends from college. She said he deserved that Saturday and every Saturday after that.

“What he deserves today is justice and I would ask that you give that to him,” Penn said.

Rafe Banks, the attorney representing Delaney, said in his closing arguments that the whole case revolves around whether the fire was intentionally set.

“There is no evidence here that Mr. Delaney did anything other than make the wrong decision to have an affair with a married woman,” Banks said. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Phil Pilgrim, one of Jill Smith’s two attorneys, compared the case to the Salem witch trials of the 17th century and said the prosecutors were on a “modern-day witch hunt.”

“They’re asking you to pick up your [pitch]forks, point fingers and follow them in a witch hunt,” Pilgrim said.

Testimony during the trial revealed that Jill Smith, Delaney and her 10-year-old son from a previous marriage were at the house the night Michael Smith died.

Evidence also showed that Jill Smith had told authorities she put her husband to bed that night after he got drunk.

The blaze was contained to the master bedroom. Firefighters found Michael Smith’s body in a crouched position on the floor of the master bathroom.

Stacey Desamours, a forensic pathologist with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, testified last week that an autopsy of Smith’s body revealed he had died of smoke inhalation and heat-related burns to 90 percent of his body.

She said he mostly suffered first- and second -degree burns, which are akin to sunburn and blistering. Soot was found in his airways.

It was nearly impossible, she said, to tell if a body was burned before or after death.

Desamours confirmed previous testimony that Michael Smith’s blood alcohol level was .14 and a low amount of alprazolam, a prescription medication for anxiety, was found in his blood.

She also testified she found nothing to indicate he’d been struck in the head or had any abrasions.

In his closing, Delaney’s attorney Banks pointed to defense testimony from an expert that the one of some 20 to 28 samples taken from the house that tested positive for gasoline was the result of a “classic mistake” in the analysis. He said the cause of the fire was “undetermined.”

While the prosecution may have implied the defense was claiming Michael Smith committed suicide, Banks said “the defense doesn’t have a clue what happened.”

Pilgrim, representing Jill Smith, contended that no one could say how the fire was set, or by whom, and echoed Banks’ assertion that the sample that tested positive for gasoline was an error.

He also challenged the state’s theory that the death was financially motivated.

Pilgrim told the jurors that in order to prove murder in the case, the prosecution had to prove arson. There were too many other reasonable alternatives that could explain what happened that night.

Penn, the district attorney, took on Pilgrim’s accusation that the case was a witch hunt, asking jurors if that’s what they had been doing the past two weeks.

“I thought this was a court of law,” she said. “This is hardly a witch hunt.”

Penn said three investigators called to testify, two on the state’s behalf and one for the defense, agreed the fire began on Michael Smith’s side of the bed.

She also contested Jill Smith’s claim of having dodged a fireball when opening the bedroom door to check on her husband after a fire alarm went off.

If that was true, Penn said, there would have been evidence the woman had been at or near flames.

Penn said a fire investigator, called by the defense, who disputed the testimony of Forsyth County Fire Lt. Debbie Lindstrom, conducted his probe without visiting the site. He had only photos, report summaries and other information to go on.

The house had been repaired and sold before he could examine it.

“We are not talking about possibilities, we are talking about what’s reasonable,” said Penn, adding that evidence supported an intentionally set fire.

Penn said Smith stood to benefit financially, some $1 million in insurance money and other funds, from her husband’s death and that her story had changed during several interviews with authorities.

“When you’re telling the truth, it’s just not that complicated,” Penn said.

She played a recording of Smith’s 911 call from that night reporting the blaze. Penn pointed out to the jury that Smith spoke in a matter of fact tone in the beginning of the seven-and-a-half-minute call.

“It’s like the captain of the Titanic calling 911 and saying my ship’s got a leak,” Penn said.

 

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