published Friday, June 6th, 2014

Memphis-area teen pleads guilty in death of mother in 2013 fire

MEMPHIS — A Memphis-area teenager was sentenced to 25 years in prison Thursday after pleading guilty to setting a house fire that killed his mother.

Jonathan Ray, 15, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and aggravated arson in Shelby County Criminal Court. In an agreement with prosecutors, Ray was sentenced by Judge James Lammey to 25 years in prison without parole on the murder plea and 15 years on the arson charge, to be served at the same time.

Deputy District Attorney General Jennifer Nichols said the deal took into consideration the family's wishes and the age of the defendant, who was 14 at the time of the April 5, 2013, fire. The case was transferred from juvenile court.

Ray had faced life in prison, without release for at least 51 years, if convicted of the original charges of first-degree murder and murder while committing aggravated arson.

Investigators said the fire that killed his mother, U.S. Postal Service employee Gwendolyn Wallace, was intentionally set. Ray used gasoline to set the fire on stairs leading to his mother's second-floor bedroom, trapping her upstairs, investigators said.

The teen set the fire after his mother took his cellphone and barred him from seeing his girlfriend for two weeks, investigators said. Ray also had been suspended from school at the time of the fire.

Ray was arrested and charged as a juvenile before his case was transferred to adult court in June. Ray's attorneys said throughout the court proceedings that he suffers from mental illness and needed treatment as a juvenile, not adult prosecution.

At a juvenile court hearing earlier this year, Special Judge Dan Michael dismissed Ray's statement acknowledging that he set the fire. Ray was not properly informed of his rights to remain silent or have an attorney present during questioning, Michael ruled.

Ray's lawyers again challenged the confession in a Thursday hearing that was interrupted by the guilty plea. Lawyers played a video showing Ray telling a detective that he went for a walk the morning of the fire. When he returned, the home was ablaze, Ray said.

Memphis police Lt. Kevin Helms testified Ray read and signed a document outlining his rights. But the detective acknowledged he did not read Ray's rights directly to him before the teen later acknowledged setting the fire.

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