LAWRENCEVILLE -- A 23-year-old Sugar Hill mother skirted a murder conviction Monday but was sentenced to serve the next 25 years in prison for a crime she vehemently denied committing.
Jurors returned from a weekend break in deliberations to find Erica Graham guilty on a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and related counts of aggravated assault, aggravated battery and child cruelty in the death of her infant daughter.
She was also convicted of lying to police in the hours after her 3-month-old daughter, Aubrey, was found dead in an upstairs bedroom Jan. 9, 2009.
Prior to sentencing, Graham told Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Ronnie Batchelor she'd leaned on her faith during 21/2 years of incarceration but felt that justice was not done.
"I did not hurt my child," a tearful Graham asserted from the defense table. "I just wanted the court to know, regardless of what the sentence is, I did not do this."
Maternal and paternal grandmothers of the victim asked the judge for mercy.
"She still has a 3-year-old (daughter) that we're raising ... she needs her mother," said Charlotte Sigler, mother of Graham's boyfriend. "I know what she's been found guilty of is horrible."
Batchelor sentenced Graham to the maximum 20 years for voluntary manslaughter and added five years to serve for false statements. He denied a request by the defense for a more lenient sentence under first-offender status.
"This was a tough case," said Assistant District Attorney John Warr. "This is something that shocks the consciousness of society."
Defense attorney Deborah Fluker said she was "shocked" by the compromised verdict, though her client ducked a possible murder conviction. Fluker called a pediatrician as a witness who opined that the child's fatal injuries involved brain swelling and rib fractures that occurred over a period of time, when various people were watching her.
"We were going for an all-or-nothing defense," Fluker said outside the courtroom. "I didn't think the evidence was there, even for the lesser charge."
Gwinnett Medical Examiner Dr. Carole Terry ruled the death a homicide but testified it was impossible to tell if the injuries occurred from shaking or an impact to the head. Elsewhere on the body, Terry documented broken ribs caused by squeezing that were in various states of healing, according to testimony last week.
Fluker contended the child's father, Mitchell Sigler, was just as likely to have inflicted the injuries as his girlfriend. The couple lived in a Sugar Hill apartment with the victim and their other daughter, now 3.
Graham was the only person home when authorities found the child dead on arrival. An investigator testified she showed almost no emotion when informed of her daughter's death.