COVINGTON -- The Supreme Court of Georgia has unanimously reversed a lower court's decision that had thrown out the convictions and death sentences for William David Riley who burned his three children alive in a trailer at the Pine Valley Mobile Home Park in 2003.
The lower court had based its ruling on a finding that Riley's trial attorney, the late John T. Strauss of the Newton County Public Defender's Office, provided ineffective legal assistance.
But in Monday's decision, written by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, the state Supreme Court disagreed with that finding, concluding there was little chance that any deficiencies on the part of the trial attorney would have changed the outcome of the trial.
The Supreme Court's decision does not mark the end of the matter, however, as the habeas judge failed to rule on whether or not Riley's attorney during his appeal was legally competent. Thus, they are sending the case back to the lower court for that ruling. If the lower court finds that the attorney was competent, the decision will then be made on whether his death sentence should be reinstated.
Newton County District Attorney Layla Zon previously stated that should the lower court's decision be upheld, she would retry the case.
Riley was convicted of murder and arson by a Newton County jury and given three death sentences in 2003 for the murders of his three children -- Ashley, 6; William, 5; and Samantha, 3 -- on Aug. 16, 2000. Riley and two other adults were in the trailer at the time it was set ablaze, but they escaped injury.
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's 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 Riley stated he would burn the trailer before he would be evicted.