LAWRENCEVILLE -- Ultimately, Richard Ringold couldn't bear to face the little girl he failed to kill.
Peppy and inquisitive, wearing a headful of braids and a school girl's uniform, Nhaje Alexander, now 7, was moments from testifying Tuesday when Ringold, the man who twice shot her and killed four others, got cold feet. In the eyes of Nhaje's family, she was the victor.
In a surprise move that brought an abrupt end to Gwinnett's first death penalty trial in seven years, Ringold pleaded guilty to every crime in a 10-count indictment. In exchange for the plea, prosecutors recommended a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole four times over -- one for each of four people he fatally shot, including Nhaje's mother and 11-year-old sister.
The deal, which Superior Court Judge Karen E. Beyers accepted, spared Ringold the possibility of being executed. More importantly for the judge, prosecutors and family of victims, it spared Nhaje from reliving the horrific events of Aug. 27, 2009 in a public hearing.
Discussions of a possible plea swirled around the trial's three-week jury selection process, but it wasn't until a short break before Nhaje's testimony that Ringold's three-person defense team came to District Attorney Danny Porter asking for a deal. Nhaje was one of two eyewitnesses to finger Ringold as the shooter, and blood found on his shoes and in the car he was driving linked him to the scene, prosecutors said.
Porter was confident Ringold would have been found guilty, noting the appalled expressions of some jurors during testimony. Whether he'd be sentenced to death or not is hard to predict, he said.
"Today, (Ringold) heard the footsteps and realized how bad it was going for him," Porter said outside the courthouse.
Flanked by his defense team and two deputies, the 47-year-old Ringold, a father himself and native of New Jersey, admitted in a low voice to fatally shooting Nhaje's sister, Jhane Thomas, and mother, Atania Butler, 28, whom he'd been dating and had moved in with the day before the mass killing. In what prosecutors believe was an effort to eliminate witnesses, Ringold also shot Nhaje (then 4 years old) and killed Butler's friend Rico Zimmerman, 19, and a blind and deaf woman Rico was hired to care for, Lakeisha Parker, 30.
Beyers, the judge, told Ringold she had conflicting emotions about accepting the plea and ending the trial.
"It's only because the family members want me to do this that I am," Beyers said.
Only when Beyers remanded Ringold to state custody for "the rest of his natural life" did he break from his stone-faced demeanor, his face appearing to wilt with emotion as deputies led him away.
Outside the courtroom, Ringold's attorney Jason Clark said his team was "grateful to Porter and the family of victims for allowing us to resolve this the way we did" but he shed little light on his client's sudden change of heart.
Ringold appeared to have led an unremarkable life, but had shown the propensity for violence years ago.
Porter said Ringold had been unemployed for sometime but had worked as a cook. In New Jersey, he'd been booked once on robbery charges but pleaded out to a lesser offense. Ringold made ends meet by sponging off women, including Butler and another girlfriend she found out about the night of her death, triggering the argument that sparked the killings.
Butler's mother, Nancy Butler, of New Orleans, believes her daughter's unwillingness to be hoodwinked by a dishonest man set Ringold off.
"He's so used to using women, and that's the one he couldn't use," she said. "She was onto him and he didn't know how to handle that."
Outside the courthouse, the families of Zimmerman and Butler rejoiced, shouting, "It's over!" They applauded young Nhaje's strength, saying she has fully recovered, has a positive outlook and is able to talk about her mother and sister.
Porter said Nhaje's "crystal clear recollection" of events stayed consistent from the nightmarish scene to test runs for her courtroom testimony and would have been a powerful prosecutorial tool. Police and paramedics testified earlier that they were awed by Nhaje's composure after she was shot through her chest and shoulder. As the killings unfolded, Nhaje ran to her upstairs bathroom and attempted to dress her arm wounds with Band-Aids.
"Her composure in this situation was remarkable," Porter said.
Still, "We didn't want her to relieve that moment (on the stand)," said Jhane's father Waddell Thomas, of New Orleans, "because we knew it'd be hurtful."
Asked about Ringold, Nhaje's grandmother didn't mince words.
"I hope he rots where he is," Nancy Butler said.