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Guilty verdict in fatal arson trial
Widow convicted; co-defendant cleared
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Forsyth County News

On the day Michael Smith would’ve turned 39, his widow was convicted of killing him in a 2010 fire at their south Forsyth home.

 

Jill Smith, 35, was sentenced Tuesday to serve life plus 20 years in prison.

 

Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David L. Dickinson handed down the punishment after a jury convicted her of one count each of murder, felony murder and first-degree arson.

 

The jury acquitted her co-defendant, 38-year-old Peter Delaney, who faced the same charges in connection with the fatal Oct. 22, 2010, blaze at 5540 Kennemore Drive.

 

Smith wept as the verdict was announced, while Delaney tilted his head back and closed his eyes.

 

Jury deliberations spanned about 16 hours over three days in the trial that began Feb. 15.

 

According to court testimony, Delaney had been having an affair with Jill Smith and was at the house the night of the fire.

 

The blaze was contained to the master bedroom. Firefighters found Michael Smith’s body in a crouched position on the floor of the nearby bathroom. An autopsy revealed he had died of smoke inhalation and heat-related burns to 90 percent of his body.

 

Tuesday, Michael Smith’s family and friends smiled through tears at Forsyth County Fire Lt. Debbie Lindstrom and Sheriff’s Investigator Sebastian Strano as they entered the courtroom for the sentence.

 

Heather Cramer, Michael Smith’s mother, told Dickinson before sentencing that she wanted peace, healing and justice for her son, whose birthday would've been Tuesday. She asked the judge to put her former daughter-in-law away for life.

 

“This good man did not deserve to die as a result of this twisted woman’s greed,” said Cramer, adding that the fire was an “act of evil.”

 

Testimony during the trial had revealed that Jill Smith stood to benefit financially — some $1 million in insurance money and other funds — from her husband’s death

 

Cramer went on to thank Lindstrom, as well as Strano and other investigators, for being her son’s voice and champion.

 

She also expressed gratitude to Dickinson for his fairness and Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn and Assistant District Attorney James Dunn for their handling of the case.

 

Claire Little, Michael Smith’s sister, remembered her brother as funny, energetic and caring. She said Jill Smith wanted the lifestyle he gave her, but not the husband.

 

Little said she also believes that if Jill Smith were allowed out of prison, “this wouldn’t stop.”

 

Debbie Seem read a letter on behalf of Phil Smith, her companion who is the father of Michael Smith.

 

In it, Phil Smith thanked the jury for its courage to deliver justice, as well as others involved in the case. He asked Dickinson “to never let Jill hurt anyone else like she hurt Mike and all who knew him.”

 

No one spoke on Jill Smith’s behalf.

 

Her attorneys, Kyle Epps and Phil Pilgrim, did not say whether they plan to file an appeal.

 

Attempts to reach them and Penn for comment after the sentencing were unsuccessful.

 

Rafe Banks, who represented Delaney, said the case turned out well for his client, “as it should have.”

 

Banks noted that investigators testified in preliminary hearings and during the trial that they had no evidence Delaney had done anything other than be at the house the night of the fire.

 

“Why did he spend 14 months in jail when at the start and at the end, both of the investigators said they had no evidence on him? His life has been ruined,” Banks said. “So I’m glad it turned out as it should have, but it was an ordeal to get there.”

 

Banks went on to say that his client never should have been arrested, indicted or tried.

 

The trial began Feb. 15, with the case going to the jury about 3:20 p.m. Friday.

 

Jurors took the weekend before resuming deliberations at 8 a.m. Monday. They broke at 6 p.m. Monday and started back Tuesday morning.