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Fulton County, Ga., Superior Court Judge Philip F. Etheridge asked for quiet in the courtroom. And, as 11 hushed and long minutes passed, all eyes rested on him. Etheridge appeared to be making notes, reading and rereading them. At one point, he stared at the wall; at another, he rubbed his forehead. Finally, after an audible sigh, he pushed the microphone in front of him and said simply, “OK.” Then he announced his decision: life without parole rather than death for Kimjon Ingram, convicted of hurling Molotov cocktails into a Mechanicsville, Ga., apartment and causing the deaths of two babies seven years ago. In passing that sentence, Etheridge became the first judge in Georgia to follow up on a jury’s verdict in the guilt-innocence phase of a death penalty trial with a judicial determination of the sentence. Other judges have tried both phases of the case, but, according to Etheridge, no other case has been handled in this manner. “This is an unusual circumstance at best,” he said, “and it’s not an altogether comfortable circumstance to be placed in.” Nonetheless, the judge said he believed it “appropriate we do it this way.” Etheridge said at the defense’s request he had accepted the responsibility typically accorded to a jury and “it will be done. That doesn’t make it comforting,” he added. The judge said the aggravating circumstances that would justify imposition of the death penalty clearly existed in Ingram’s case: The 1994 murders of 2-year-old Dyneshua and 6-week-old Lexious Henderson had occurred during the commission of another capital felony: arson. Etheridge also noted that Ingram acted as an agent of another — a high-ranking official in the FOLKS (Followers of Our Lord King Satan) gang — and he knowingly created a great risk of death to others in the apartment complex. But whether the death penalty should be imposed “was a much harder question,” Etheridge said. Defense lawyer Drew Findling, in his closing argument to the judge, told Etheridge that the death penalty was not proper in this case, although he added that didn’t mean “two little girls’ lives were not worth the death penalty.” Findling said that, as a father, he had been greatly affected by the case over the past seven years, and added that he had never lost sight of the tragic loss of life at issue. Still, Findling added, the case lacked the “cleanliness” needed to impose the death penalty. Co-defendants, including one equally culpable, had won “absolutely miraculous deals” on sentences, he reminded Etheridge, adding that Ingram should not be subject to disparate treatment in sentencing. Co-defendant Christopher Wolfe was convicted of murder in connection with the firebombing and received two consecutive life sentences. Ingram acted at the direction of FOLKS gang “queen” Cassandra Heflin, who, Findling said, was sentenced to no more than 20 years on an arson charge, then had that sentence commuted for good behavior while in the Fulton jail. Findling also pointed out that four Fulton County deputies had come to court to testify on Ingram’s behalf. All called him a model prisoner and a peacemaker in the jail. Findling said he wasn’t asking Etheridge to commute Ingram’s sentence, but to consider the sentences of others involved and to reward Ingram’s “stellar” behavior while incarcerated. He asked Etheridge to impose a life sentence with the possibility for parole, to give Ingram some hope that one day he might see his family face-to-face. Findling also argued that Etheridge should consider that it took seven years for Ingram’s case to be tried. The two prosecutors in the courtroom, Senior Assistant District Attorney Thomas S. Robinson and Chief Senior Assistant DA Rhonda Brodsky, he said, were the 11th and 12th assigned to the case and Etheridge the fourth judge. TURNING INTO A DEATH PENALTY CASE Ingram’s case was not always a death penalty prosecution. Prosecutors at first tried to seek the newly instituted life-without-parole sentence. But the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that life without parole was only an option in cases where the death penalty was sought. In 1996, prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty. The passage of time, Findling argued, had resulted in failed memories. Only a “stubbornness and lack of study of the facts” had caused “the powers above to require these ADAs to seek death.” But Robinson argued that the issue wasn’t the history of the case, the number of judges or the changes in prosecutors, but the aggravating circumstances of the crime. Those circumstances existed no matter which prosecutors or judges were on the case, he said. All the mitigating evidence amounted to, Robinson argued, was that Ingram was a good prisoner. Free, he added, Ingram was an entirely different person. But the death penalty should be imposed because of the nature of the crime, Robinson said. “The judging is of the act and not of the person.” He asked Etheridge to “let justice permeate your being. And when you strike the pen to the page … let justice be done.” Etheridge, however, said he looked to the jury’s finding in the September trial in reaching his decision. The jury acquitted Ingram of malice murder, which requires a finding of express or implied malice, convicting him of felony murder and arson. “I realize murder is murder,” Etheridge said, “and two young children lost their lives.” But he said the evidence at trial showed that Ingram did not intend to kill children and didn’t know any were in the apartment. “Obviously, that doesn’t excuse him from throwing bombs into the apartment, but it does factor into mitigation.” But Etheridge still had to choose between life without parole or with the possibility of parole. He said he found the deputies’ testimony about Ingram’s conduct in jail unusual, if not extraordinary, and noted that Findling had made a compelling argument for giving Ingram some hope of eventual release. However, he continued, Ingram was an active gang member and took his gang membership so seriously that he was “apparently willing to do what was required of him without consideration of the consequences.” Bombing a home, he said, is a “particularly cowardly, heinous act. We think of our homes as a safe haven for our family, particularly for our children.” Ingram may have changed his life now, Etheridge said, but it took the loss of two innocent lives to bring him to that point. Life without parole was the appropriate choice, the judge concluded.

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