COVINGTON -- In one of the most notorious and horrific Newton County crimes in recent history, William David Riley was found guilty of murder and arson in 2003 and sentenced to death for setting fire to his home and burning his three young children alive. According to a press release from the Supreme Court of Georgia, Riley has been "granted relief" from that conviction and sentence, meaning prosecutors will need to retry him or have him set free if the ruling stands.
The state is appealing the decision and the case is set to be heard on Friday, April 27, at a special session to be held at the Thomasville Municipal Auditorium in Thomasville.
Riley appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia in 2004, but the conviction and three death sentences -- one for each child -- were unanimously upheld. In 2005, Riley filed a petition for a "writ of habeas corpus." Habeas corpus is a civil proceeding available to already convicted prisoners, allowing them another opportunity to challenge their convictions in the county where they're imprisoned. Such a proceeding is generally filed against the prison warden, who in this case was Carl Humphrey.
Following a four-day hearing in January of this year in Butts County where death row is located, the habeas judge granted Riley relief from his sentences and convictions stating that Riley received "ineffective assistance from counsel" at his trial. His defense attorney was the late John T. Strauss of the Newton County Public Defender's Office and a former Alcovy Circuit district attorney. Also Edgar Callaway served as an assistant public defender.
The state attorney general, representing the warden, is now appealing the habeas judge's order to the Georgia Supreme Court. In a cross appeal, Riley is appealing other parts of the habeas court's ruling.
Newton County District Attorney Layla Zon said she is prepared to take up the prosecution of this case where former District Attorney Ken Wynne left off.
"I plan to attend the oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court that will be held in Thomasville," she said. "If the Supreme Court does not reverse the January ruling, I will re-try the case."
Riley was living in a trailer at the Pine Valley Mobile Home Park on Ga. Highway 36 when the fire that killed his three children -- Ashley, 6; William, 5; and Samantha, 3 -- broke out on the morning of Aug. 16, 2000. In the trailer at the time were Riley, his girlfriend Jacque Hampton and a friend, Wayne Atnip. All three adults escaped the blaze, but the three children perished.
Neighbors and firefighters reported Riley's odd behavior during the fire, testifying that he did not try to save his children and that his demeanor was cold and unemotional.
A prior girlfriend testified that he had made threats to kill his children and when threatened with the Department of Family and Children Services taking custody of the children, a neighbor testified she heard Riley say he would kill them first. Further, Riley was reportedly in dire financial straits and was facing eviction from the trailer. The neighbor also said he stated he would burn the trailer before he would be evicted.
According to the Supreme Court's press release, in responding to the appeal of the habeas judge's ruling, Riley's current attorneys, Michael Brown of Alston and Bird in Atlanta and Mary Wells contend the habeas judge was correct in ruling that Riley's trial attorney (Strauss) was ineffective for failing to turn over psychological test results and testimony of an arson expert and failing to investigate and present evidence of his girlfriend's (Jacque Hampton) history of mental illness, criminal activity and abuse of her own children.
"The evidence suggests that Hampton herself had both motive and opportunity to start the fire at issue," the attorneys argued.