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Testimony begins in fatal fire case
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Forsyth County News

Attorneys on Wednesday didn’t dispute that two defendants in a fatal arson case were having an affair.

But they were quick to note that the validity of the rest of the evidence, as well as verdict, will be up to a jury to decide.

Jill Smith and Peter Delaney are on trial for the Oct. 22, 2010, blaze that killed Smith’s husband Michael at their home on Kennemore Drive in south Forsyth.

Smith and Delaney pleaded not guilty in March to one count each of murder, felony murder and first-degree arson.

Opening arguments and testimony in the case began Wednesday afternoon.

Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David L. Dickinson is presiding over the trial, which is expected to last up to three weeks.

Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney James Dunn told jurors that on the night of the fire, Jill Smith had invited Delaney over.

She asked him in a text message to bring three bottles of wine so that her husband would get drunk and pass out. Jill Smith’s son from a previous relationship was also at the house.

According to Dunn, the Jill Smith-Delaney affair began sometime in late 2009 and she didn’t stand to get much money if she divorced.

However, Dunn said, if her husband died of an accident, Jill Smith stood to benefit from more than $1 million in insurance money and other funds.

Dunn said Jill Smith had started a private investigation business in 2008, and used that as an excuse to go out at night with Delaney while Michael Smith was at home with her son.

He explained that Michael Smith was the breadwinner and in 2010 was making a base salary in information technology sales of $80,000 a year. After bonuses, he cleared $153,000.

Dunn laid out for the jurors the events of the night, including the 911 call Jill Smith made to report the blaze and Delaney’s drunken statements to officials that Michael Smith had committed suicide and that the Smiths were divorcing.

Dunn also noted Smith’s death of smoke inhalation, Jill Smith’s various accounts of what happened that night and other evidence the prosecution plans to present.

By the end of the trial, Dunn said, the jury would have only one option "and that’s a verdict of guilty."

Attorney Rafe Banks, who represents Delaney, countered that his client had nothing to gain from Michael Smith’s insurance policy. In addition, he visited with the Smiths at their home some 10 times before Michael Smith’s death.

In characterizing Jill Smith’s and Delaney’s relationship, he said his client "had a drinking buddy with benefits" and that the only thing Delaney is guilty of is the affair.

"There is no evidence that he did anything to ever cause the fire, that he participated in it in any fashion, even if you conclude it was a set fire," Banks said.

Banks said he heard nothing in Dunn’s opening arguments that implicated his client in an arson or murder. He told the jurors they must first decide if the fire actually was arson.

"If it’s not an arson, the case is over," Banks said.

He noted that Delaney, a pilot for ASA, cooperated with authorities and wasn’t arrested until Dec. 21, 2010, when he was pulled out of the cockpit of an airplane in Baton Rouge, La.

Phil Pilgrim, one of Smith’s two attorneys, disputed Dunn’s claim that her accounts of that night had been inconsistent. He contended his client’s story hadn’t changed.

Pilgrim said an investigator who will testify for the defense can explain the process used to determine different classes of fires, including arson.

Of the 23 samples authorities took from the house and tested for an accelerant, Pilgrim said "not one came back positive."

He said the insurance company took an additional five samples as part of its investigation.

The first tested positive for gasoline, said Pilgrim, before adding that his witness will testify that a mistake had been made and that carpets generally are petroleum-based.

He said evidence will show the fire was not set, that Michael Smith had no direct burns on his body, and that no one in the house that night could be excluded.

Like the other two attorneys, Pilgrim asked the jurors to pay close attention to the evidence.

"I ask you to find my client not guilty of all the charges," he said.

After opening arguments, two Forsyth County firefighters who responded to the blaze testified.

The said that when they arrived, smoke and flames were coming out of the master bedroom upstairs and that Michael Smith was found crouched on the floor of the master bathroom.

Jeremy Dennis testified that when he and Patrick Anderson entered the house through the garage, there was no smoke or fire on the first floor.

He said they made their way upstairs, where the smoke was so thick, they couldn’t see their hands in front of them and flames were rolling out of the bedroom door.

Dennis said Anderson worked to extinguish the flames and he crawled through the bedroom, following the wall, to find Smith, who was unresponsive.

The jury also heard a recording of the 911 call Jill Smith made that night.