LAWRENCEVILLE -- Nearly four years removed from the wallop of Hurricane Katrina, which shooed her family from New Orleans, Atania Butler had carved a life for her two daughters in a quiet Lawrenceville subdivision near the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds.
Two days shy of the hurricane's anniversary, Butler's unassuming home on Clairidge Lane hosted what District Attorney Danny Porter described Friday as a "bloodbath." The dead were Butler, her 11-year-old daughter and two friends.
As Gwinnett's first death penalty trial since 2005 unfolded Friday, jurors were asked to picture a horrendous scene: a home strewn with 9 mm bullet casings, blood trails and pools of blood. All four victims had been shot in the head at least once. At the front door lay Butler, 28; slumped over a microwave, her friend Rico Zimmerman, 19; in the living room, Butler's eldest daughter, Jhane Thomas, 11, and on a couch a blind and deaf woman named Lakeisha Parker, 30, who had been under Zimmerman's care.
As police arrived, Butler and Parker issued wordless gasps before dying; the others were already dead, Porter said during opening statements.
Then, a surprise. A little girl, Butler's 4-year-old daughter, peeked around a corner. She too had been shot, at least twice, but showed no outward injuries or signs of bleeding. What she had seen was critical, Porter said.
"Rich shot my mommy in the nose," Porter said, quoting the girl's statement to police. "My whole family is dead."
Porter said the girl was referring to Richard Ringold, 47, the lone suspect in the Aug. 27, 2009, rampage.
Ringold had been romantically involved with Butler for months and called her "wifey" though he was technically married to a Loganville woman. Butler had rented a car for him, even let him move in the day before the murders. Porter said Ringold was unemployed and sponging off both women.
An argument erupted between Butler and Ringold the night of her death when the women found out about each other -- and spoke on the phone. As Butler hung up, she was shot from behind, Porter told jurors.
As police catalogued the carnage, Ringold drove up to the home around midnight in the car Butler had provided him. He claimed to have no knowledge of the killings, but his shoe bore blood that tests later showed was Butler's, as was the blood stain on the driver's side carpet of Ringold's car, Porter said.
Gladys Pollard, one of three attorneys from the Georgia Capital Defenders Office in Ringold's corner, cautioned jurors that "there's always two sides to every story."
The defense strategy, based on Pollard's brief opening statements, appears to be that Ringold was wrongly implicated. She hinted that a detective could have mishandled Ringold's clothes by taking them back to the blood-strewn scene instead of immediately filing them as evidence.
Pollard said another woman will testify that Ringold was with her so much in the 18 months before his arrest, he couldn't have possibly had time to court Butler.
Gifty Kargbo, the only witness to escape the home unharmed, said the front-yard argument between Butler and Ringold lasted for about an hour, before Butler opened the door and said, "Rico ..." That would be her last word, Kargbo testified.
Ringold was tugging at Butler to come back outside, before he fired a shot into her head, collapsing her in the foyer. He then walked methodically through the home, cornering Kargbo and Zimmerman near a sliding back door that was jammed, she testified.
"Rico said, 'Chill out'" but was executed -- two shots to his skull -- before Ringold turned his attention to the living room, where the other three victims were seated around a video game, Kargbo testified. She fled through other rooms to the front door and into the street. A few doors down, she frantically convinced a woman to dial 911.
From the stand, Kargbo fingered Ringold -- donning a sandstone-colored suit and red tie -- as the shooter.
"I'm sure he did it," she testified.
As Kargbo's breathless 911 call for help was played as evidence, a woman later identified as Butler's sister rushed for the exit and wailed, shattering silence in the crowded courtroom. Defense attorney Jason Clark asked Superior Court Judge Karen Beyers to declare a mistrial, while Porter argued the outburst was not enough to prejudice the jury. Beyers denied the motion for a mistrial but barred the victim's sister from court for the duration of the trial.
Testimony will resume Monday. Porter said he expects the trial to wrap sometime next week.
The jury selection process, described by Porter as "grueling and arduous," consumed nearly three weeks, as hundreds of potential jurors were weeded out for the chosen panel of 16 (alternates included). The diverse panel is split evenly between men and women.
Georgia law stipulates that jurors must unanimously decide to condemn Ringold to death or life without parole.