Originally created 12/17/06

Three men are convicted in debutante's death



SAVANNAH, Ga. - Three men were convicted of murder Saturday in the death of a 19-year-old debutante who was shot in the back during a mugging last Christmas Eve, sparking outrage among civic leaders who know her family.

Michael Thorpe, 26, Webster Wilson, 25, and Kevin Huckabee, 21, face automatic sentences of life in prison.

Hours after she was presented as a debutante at the city's Christmas Cotillion, Jennifer Ross was shot in the back early Dec. 24 in Savannah's downtown historic district when muggers ambushed her and three of her friends.

She died New Year's Day at a hospital where her father is an executive.

Prosecutors said Mr. Thorpe shot Ms. Ross in the back after she refused to give up her purse, while Mr. Wilson pistol-whipped Brett Finely, one of Ms. Ross' friends, and held him at gunpoint. Mr. Huckabee was accused of driving the getaway car.

Defense lawyers rested their case without calling witnesses but seized on statements by one eyewitness, Ms. Ross' friend Brannen Miles, who told police one of the attackers was white.

The prosecution case hinged mostly on Mr. Thorpe's uncle, 25-year-old Sean Thorpe, who was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. He said he set out with his nephew, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Huckabee on the morning of the attack looking for an easy target to rob.

Jurors found the three not guilty of separate malice murder charges, which would have meant that they had set out with intent to commit the crime.

In addition to Sean Thorpe's testimony, friends of the defendants testified that the three men boasted that they committed the crime.

Defense lawyers told jurors the witnesses couldn't be trusted because they sought cash rewards or legal deals to settle their own criminal charges.

Jurors heard six days of testimony and legal arguments before beginning deliberations Thursday.

The case garnered national attention through the coverage of the cable network Court TV, whose video cameras provided pool coverage for local broadcast television stations.

But its reporting got the channel into trouble Friday with the judge and prosecution, when the channel reported about a split vote in the jury deliberations.

That angered Judge Penny Haas Freesemann, who has presided over the case.

"My sole purpose is to ensure the sanctity of the jury room," the judge said Friday. "I want the electronic media out of here now. Between now and the time of the verdict, I want you out."

THE TRIAL

THE VICTIM


Jennifer Ross was shot while walking with three friends Dec. 24 shortly after 3 a.m., hours after she had been presented as a debutante at Savannah's Christmas Cotillion. She died a week later on New Year's Day.

CONVICTED

Three men were convicted in Ms. Ross' slaying. They are Kevin Huckabee, Michael Thorpe and Webster Wilson.

Associated Press and Morris News Service reports were used in this article.