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Death penalty trial on deck in Gwinnett

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Barring delays, mass-shooting suspect Richard Ringold next week will be the first defendant to face capital punishment in Gwinnett County in nearly seven years. He could be the first sentenced to death in a decade.

Following hundreds of pretrial motions and orders common to death-penalty cases, jury selection in Ringold's murder trial is scheduled to begin Monday. The process of weeding out jurors should take at least a week. How long the trial will last is impossible to know, said Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter, who is heading the prosecution.

Gwinnett's last death-penalty trial spanned two months from jury selection to verdict.

Prosecutors believe Ringold, 47, was the lone shooter in a domestic rampage at his girlfriend's Lawrenceville home in August 2009. The victims included girlfriend Atania Butler, 28, her 11-year-old daughter, Rico Zimmerman, 19, and Lakeisha Parker, 30. All four were shot execution-style, following an argument between Ringold and Butler in the home's front yard, detectives said at the time.

Ringold is also accused of shooting Butler's 4-year-old daughter in the shoulder. She survived, as did an uninjured woman who fled to a home down the street and called 911, police said.

Porter said the state plans to call about 30 witnesses in the initial phase of the trial.

Ringold's attorneys at the Georgia Capital Defenders Office have been reticent to discuss the case. A message left for Christian Lamar, the agency's deputy director of litigation and one of two attorneys defending Ringold, was not returned Friday.

The defense's strategy remains a mystery even to prosecutors, though Porter said no pretrial filings would indicate they will pursue an insanity defense.

"I don't know what their claim is," Porter said Friday.

Ringold faces four counts each of murder and weapons possession, along with one count of aggravated assault for allegedly shooting the child that survived. Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Karen Beyers will preside.

Days after Ringold's arrest, Gwinnett defense attorney Charlie Wrinkle, who initially represented Ringold, painted him as a caring father of three and former cook with hardly a traffic ticket on his criminal record. He was married to a woman in Loganville at the time, the attorney said.

Ringold arrived at the crime scene shortly after midnight and surrendered without incident.

According to Georgia law, a jury will have to reach a unanimous verdict for Ringold to be sentenced to death or life without parole. In November 2005, that rule spared Gwinnett's last murder suspect to face the death penalty.

Wesley Harris was sentenced to life in prison without parole instead of the death penalty for kidnapping and fatally shooting 22-year-old Whitney Land and her 2-year-old daughter, Jordan, on Nov. 8, 1999.

The jury was split 10-2 on the death penalty.

Harris abducted the pair from a park in Clayton County and then drove their car to Duluth. He shot them each several times, stuffed their bodies in the trunk and burned the car at a water treatment plant.

Gwinnett prosecutors were last successful in securing the death penalty in 2002, when Michael Nance was condemned for a second time after his initial death sentence was overturned by the state Supreme Court.

Nance killed a Gwinnett County Department of Transportation employee while trying to escape a botched bank robbery in 1993.

Ringold's case joins two pending death-penalty cases in Gwinnett.

Khahn Dinh Phan is accused of fatally shooting a Lilburn boy, 2, and his father in 2004 as revenge for a debt.

And Porter told the Daily Post on Friday his office plans to seek the death penalty for Damion Barton, 33, a Conyers resident accused of tying up, torturing, robbing and shooting a 61-year-old Snellville woman in her bedroom two years ago.

In Georgia, the death penalty can be imposed for crimes ranging from murder to armed robbery, so long as it's done in conjunction with a "mitigating circumstance" that sets the crime apart, such as torture or particularly vile acts.