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Bloody shoes at issue in death penalty trial

LAWRENCEVILLE — From the scene of an indiscriminate slaughter that began with the killing of Atania Butler three years ago, police and paramedics found a remarkably lucid eyewitness in her 4-year-old daughter Nhaje, according to testimony Monday.

Nhaje had been shot twice and claimed to have watched her mother die before her elder sister, 11-year-old Jhane Thomas, and two family friends were executed in her Lawrenceville home. But she’d had the wherewithal to change her clothes and attempt to bandage her wounds before police arrived, testified the first emergency personnel on scene in the second day of a capital murder trial.

“She was very calm — abnormally calm for someone who had just gone through a traumatic experience,” testified Gwinnett County Fire Department EMT Adam Hawkins.

Butch Hunter, a Gwinnett paramedic at the time of the shooting, testified that Nhaje was shot twice — in her left arm and near her right clavicle — and both bullets exited her body. She was of such a sound mind that she ran upstairs, changed out of a bloody shirt and applied two Band-Aids to the wounds on the front and back of her arm. She then changed into a favorite shirt that her mother had bought, which she pleaded with emergency responders to not ruin by cutting it off with trauma shears, Hunter testified.

Those tending to Nhaje said she matter-of-factly implicated her mother’s boyfriend, Richard Ringold, as the shooter. He faces a potential death sentence in the quadruple murder and shooting.

“Her mental state was fine ... she could handle a conversation,” Hunter testified. “She said: ‘Rich shot me.’”

Hawkins testified that on the roughly 25-minute ride to Atlanta Children’s Hospital at Egleston, Nhaje repeated seven to 10 times that she’d been playing a Wii video game console when “Rich shot mommy right in the nose,” he recalled.

Jurors were shown a graphic video and photos Monday afternoon of a crime scene that consumed the two-story home. Ringold, wearing a gray suit and open-collar blue Oxford, watched a video monitor intently, looking away when the 11-year-old girl was pictured, slumped and bloody on the living-room floor. A flat-screen television in the room was still playing the Disney Channel.

Prosecutors believe Ringold, 47, was the lone shooter in the domestic rampage at Butler’s home on Aug. 27, 2009. All five were shot following an argument between Ringold and Butler in the home’s front yard, prosecutors said.

The trial broke for a long lunch Monday after Ringold’s defense team moved to suppress key evidence they feel was illegally seized by police.

The evidence in question is two all-black Nike Air sneakers Ringold was allegedly wearing that night. Tests later showed that blood on the back of the shoes belonged to Butler. Prosecutors believe the blood links Ringold to the killing spree, as does blood found on the driver’s side carpet of the car he was driving.

Attorneys for Ringold argued that the clothing was improperly taken into custody without a search warrant. Gwinnett police Sgt. Matt Brookins, a homicide detective working the mass shooting, testified that he did not notice the blood on the shoes until Ringold disrobed at the Gwinnett County Jail and the clothing items were stacked in a plastic bag.

Defense attorney Jason Clark said Brookins changed his testimony from an earlier hearing, in that Brookins said Monday he asked Ringold to disrobe. Earlier, Clark said, Ringold disrobed as part of the process for being booked into jail.

“You can’t just go seizing anything that may contain evidentiary value without probable cause or a warrant,” Clark argued before Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Karen. E. Beyers.

District Attorney Danny Porter countered that the clothing was seized as part of Ringold’s arrest and jail booking.

Beyers called a long recess to examine case law, previous testimony from other hearings in the case and a transcript of Monday’s proceedings. She later ruled the defense’s motion lacked merit.

Brookins testified that he did bring the shoes and clothing back to the crime scene, where all the department’s crime scene technicians were working. The items changed hands in the street outside the home, never closer than at least 40 feet from the bloody entryway where Butler lay, he testified.

In opening statements, the defense posited that Ringold’s shoes could have been contaminated with blood after they were in police possession.

Testimony is expected to continue Tuesday and conclude later this week.