HOUSTON -- A husband and wife accused of starting a deadly fire a decade ago to collect insurance money no longer face murder charges.
David and Sharon Watkins allegedly set their house ablaze in May 2003, the last of five suspicious fires at their northeast Houston home that authorities said netted them more than $500,000 in insurance claims.
Arson investigators said the couple hoped to keep the flames under control but the fire spread rapidly, killing their 8 year-old daughter Shanda and a 16 year-old visitor named Raymond Farley Jr.
After Watkins' trial last October ended with a hung jury, prosecutors with the Harris County District Attorney's Office and federal ATF investigators reviewed the case and came to the conclusion there wasn't enough evidence to win a conviction. They dropped the charges late last week.
The father of the teenager who died in the blaze said he understood the prosecutors' decision, but he still feels "hurt and disappointed."
"Just don't seem like the judicial system works for the right cause at all," said Rev. Raymond Lee Farley, the pastor of the Greater New Sanctuary Missionary Baptist Church, whose son died in the fire. "It seems like the crooks always get the benefit. And the victim, they always get the short end of the stick."
The clergyman recalled giving his son, whom he called "Junior," permission to spend the night at the Watkins' home because they had worked late together rehearsing a musical performance for the church. Now he's convinced the couple has gotten away with murder.
"I just feel they are not fit for society," Farley said. "They ought to be locked up from now on, because they've taken something you can never give back."
The case has a long and difficult history. It took seven years for investigators to file criminal charges. Then the entire prosecution was endangered by an unrelated scandal after a couple of the investigators were accused of stealing some rare comic books kept as evidence in another case.
Ultimately, the district attorney's office said that incident played no role in the decision to drop the murder charges.
Authorities said Watkins was a free man, but his wife is jailed on an unrelated case. Sharon Watkins is serving a nine year sentence for bank robbery, they said.