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High court upholds conviction in 2010 fatal arson case

SOUTH FORSYTH — The state Supreme Court has unanimously upheld the arson and murder convictions of a woman for a 2010 house fire that killed her husband in south Forsyth.

Jill Adaire Smith received a life sentence plus 20 years for one count each of murder, felony murder and first-degree arson after intentionally starting a fire in the master bedroom, where Michael Smith was sleeping.

Justice Robert Benham wrote Monday for the seven-member court that the evidence in this case, which drew much media attention from the October 2010 incident to the February 2012 trial, was sufficient to “find appellant [Smith] guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes for which she was convicted.”

The Smiths, who had been married since 2008, lived on Kennemore Drive in Forsyth County with Jill Smith’s young son.

According to prosecutors, mainly Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn and Assistant District Attorney James Dunn, Jill Smith began having an affair with Peter Delaney sometime around December 2009.

On the night of the fire, all four people were in the house when Jill Smith called 911.

When firefighters extinguished the blaze, they found Michael Smith’s body lying on the bathroom floor, according to Justice Benham’s summary of opinion.

It was later deemed Michael Smith had died from smoke inhalation and burns covering 90 percent of his body.

After giving conflicting stories on whether he committed suicide because he was depressed and getting divorced or whether the Smiths’ marriage was good and an accident with candles led to the fire, both Jill Smith and Delaney were arrested.

Testimony during the trial also revealed she had lost her business a few months before the fire and stood to gain more than $500,000 from several insurance policies if her husband’s death was an accident.

Following a three-day trial in 2012, Smith was convicted on all counts, while Delaney was acquitted of the same.

She was 35 at the time. The verdict came on what would have been her late husband’s 39thbirthday.

Benham rejected Smith’s argument in her appeal, which the court heard in July, that the evidence used was insufficient to prove her guilt because the state never proved who started the fire and the evidence was circumstantial.

He also rejected her argument that the court erred in failing to instruct the jury to disregard a statement by the lead investigator that implied Smith knew she was guilty.

“In this situation, we cannot say there was any reversible error,” Benham wrote. Smith’s attorney “made a strategic decision not to pursue any further remedy, and such decision does not evidence ineffective assistance.”