Man faces life term after conviction in arson that killed 3

September 25, 2022 GMT

PITTSBURGH (AP) — A man convicted of having set a house fire that killed a young child and two women in Pittsburgh 4 1/2 years ago now faces a life prison sentence without possibility of parole.

Jurors in Allegheny County deliberated for about six hours over two days before convicting Martell Smith of three counts of second-degree murder in the December 2017 fire, the Tribune-Review reported. He was also convicted of multiple counts of arson but acquitted of one attempted homicide count.

Prosecutors had been seeking a first-degree murder conviction and planned to pursue capital punishment if jurors convicted Smith on that charge, citing the multiple felonies, the child victim and the defendant’s criminal record. But Smith, 45, continued to assert his innocence and said “Life in prison is the death penalty. It’s just slower.”

“I understand they need somebody to pay for the crime, and everything lined up for me to be that person,” he told Common Pleas Judge Jill Rangos. “I’m just another in a long line of Black men sent to the correctional system to die there.”

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Pittsburgh authorities allege Smith set the early morning fire after getting into a bar fight. Police say surveillance images show him buying a gas can and filling it at a gas station, and they allege he then drove to the Homewood neighborhood home, doused the three-story brick structure with the gasoline, lit it and drove away.

Killed were 21-year-old Shamira Staten, her 4-year-old daughter, Ch’yenne Manning, and 58-year-old Sandra Carter Douglas. A witness told police he overheard Smith muttering “yep, yep, I did it,” while fire crews battled the blaze around 2 a.m. Wednesday. The police complaint alleged Smith was also heard muttering “they made me do it.”

Deputy District Attorney Brian Catanzarite told jurors in closing arguments that none of the victims played any role in the bar fight involving Smith, but they “paid the ultimate price for his vengeance.”

“He gave these people no chance whatsoever,” he said.

Cecil Douglas said he met his wife, Sandy, in grade school more than four decades ago and married her in 1993. He said he most missed her “warmth and attentiveness. She really made you feel special.” Lasandra Hawthorne told the court that she desperately misses her mom, and felt “no one in this world loved me as much” as she did.

Defense attorney Michael Machen, who attacked the credibility of a prosecution witness and the timeline presented by authorities, told the court that his client was among the most polite that he’d ever had, calling him “a gentle soul.”