By Emanuella Grinberg
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SAVANNAH, Georgia (Court TV) -- A Georgia man gave the middle finger to a judge who sentenced him to life in prison plus 40 years for the shooting death of a Savannah debutante during a botched robbery.
Michael Thorpe, 26, gestured and shouted "F--- democracy!" as deputies led him Saturday from the courtroom where Chatham County Superior Court Judge Penny Haas Freeseman sentenced him for shooting Jennifer Ross on Christmas Eve 2005.
Ross, a 19-year-old Mercer University student who had attended her debutante ball earlier that evening, died on the operating table one week later from a sudden ruptured artery.
Thorpe's co-defendant, Kevin Huckabee, 21, also shouted and cursed after Freeseman sentenced him to life in prison plus 30 years as a party to the crime for driving the getaway car.
Co-defendant Webster Wilson, 25, simply glanced at his mother after he was also sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years as a party to the crime.
The jury of five men and seven women deliberated for 17 hours over three days.
They convicted the defendants of felony murder, but acquitted them of the top charge of malice murder, which requires a finding that the defendants planned and committed the crime with "an abandoned or malignant heart," according to Georgia law.
They were also convicted of aggravated assault with the intent to rob for pistol-whipping Ross's friend, Brett Finley, and convicted of theft for using a stolen Ford Taurus to drive to and from the crime scene.
The defendants' outbursts contrasted with the somber tone set by Jennifer Ross's mother, Coren Ross, who read a prepared statement expressing the impact of her daughter's death.
"We are broken, both individually and collectively," said Ross, as her husband fought back tears in the audience. "Rusty will not walk Jennifer down the aisle at her wedding ... I will not caress her pregnant tummy."
But Ross said she could not help but see good in her daughter's death, which provoked reforms in Savannah's public safety procedures. Since Jennifer Ross's death, the city has announced plans to install surveillance cameras in 22 public squares, including the one where Ross and her friends were attacked.
Ross's mother also downplayed the notion that the prosecution of three black defendants for the death of a white woman was racially charged.
"Jennifer's murder galvanized and energized everyone who heard about it because it showcased two mentalities, one which still believes you must work for what you want, and one which believes that you can take what someone else has worked for," Ross said.
In five days of testimony, the jury heard from several witnesses who said that they were with the defendants as they made plans to go out "on licks," or in search of people to rob.
The same witnesses also testified that Thorpe bragged about shooting Ross because she refused to give up her purse.
No forensic evidence linked the defendants to the crime. The prosecution's case also hinged on the testimony of Thorpe's uncle, who testified that he was in on the defendants' plot to find an "easy target," but fled at the last moment.
Sean Thorpe received immunity for implicating the three defendants in the robbery and the shooting, leading defense lawyers to question how much of his story was simply an effort to conceal his involvement.
Thorpe's relatives and friends gasped when Freeseman read the not-guilty verdict on the malice murder charge. But by the time Freeseman read aloud the guilty verdicts for seven of the nine counts against Thorpe, his mother and several others, including the mother of his child, were weeping quietly in the courtroom.
Huckabee's mother, Maude, had to be removed from the courtroom and was rolled out of the courthouse on a stretcher after hyperventilating and sobbing.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys declined to comment after the sentencing, but Ross's mother offered her sympathies to the defendants' families.
"We mothers have a whole lot more in common than some people might expect," Ross told reporters outside the courthouse. "My heart just breaks for them."