The Georgia Supreme Court reversed a ruling Monday that threw out the murder convictions and death sentence for William David Riley, convicted of killing his three young children in a fire on Aug. 16, 2000.
A Newton County jury convicted Riley of the murder of his children Samantha, William and Ashley, (ages 3 to 6) and of arson in 2004, sentencing him to die. In 2005, Riley filed a writ of habeas corpus, amending it in 2007. In 2012, the habeas court granted his petition, vacating his convictions and sentences. The Warden of Jackson Diagnostic and Classification Prison appealed that.
Typically, convicted criminals have four years to file a writ of habeas corpus, Latin for "you have the body." This is a judicial mandate to a prison official who orders an inmate be brought to court to determine if that person is lawfully imprisoned and whether or not they should be released. The petition must show that the court ordering the detention or imprisonment made a legal or factual error. The process can also delay the punishment. Riley claimed he was deprived of a fair trial because of the ineffectiveness of his lawyers.
During the trial, evidence showed that a fire broke out at the rented mobile home Riley, his girlfriend, his three children and another friend lived in. All of the adults made it out of the home, but the three children died in their bedroom. Neighbors reported that he was unemotional and made no efforts to save the children.
His former girlfriend said they were days away from eviction and Riley had said he would "burn the home down before he would allow himself to be evicted." Three days before the fire, neighbors reported that Riley said he wished "that his girlfriend and children were dead."
According to the ruling, "In a second interview after the fire, Riley began to change his story: he now claimed that he had intentionally set fire to the corner of his son's bed as his children slept; claimed that he set the fire only to scare his girlfriend. A fellow inmate testified that Riley had admitted that he started the fire while his children lay in their bed and that Riley had said that he was planning to ‘pretend that he was out of it' when the fire began and to claim that the fire was caused by ‘faulty wiring.'"
Although the habeas court agreed to overturn the conviction and sentence, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned that decision.