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Arsonist guilty of manslaughter

A 66-year-old Suwannee County man was convicted of manslaughter and other charges in an arson fire that killed four members of his wife's family. A jury in Live Oak deliberated nine hours before returning the verdict against Herman Winford Donahue. The jury also found Donahue guilty of arson, burglary and three counts of attempted first-degree murder.

He had been charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the April 1990 fire that killed four and injured three.

Killed were Donahue's mother-in-law, Mabel Thompson, 78; her sons, Roger Thompson, 40, and Farrill Thompson, 45; and her daughter, Sylvia Lewis, 50. Farrill Thompson and Ms. Lewis were blind and deaf.

Despite the verdict, the Thompson family remains convinced of his innocence. Several relatives testified Donahue got along well with his relatives. They also testified there was a constant smell of propane gas in the home and they suspected a leaking gas line caused the fire.

"We don't believe you did it, Herman. Ain't nobody believes you did it," said a niece, who refused to give her name.

Assistant State Attorney Russ Ramey said he was satisfied with the verdict late Wednesday, although the state had planned to seek the death penalty if Donahue had been convicted of first-degree murder.

Under state sentencing guidelines, Donahue could face up to 30 years in prison on each manslaughter and attempted murder charge.

Ramey said he will ask the judge to declare Donahue a habitual offender and exceed the sentencing guidelines. The fire occurred a month after Donahue was released from prison on an aggravated battery conviction.

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