By Joel Hall
Clayton County Superior Court Judge Geronda Carter sentenced a Jonesboro man to life in prison Friday, for the murder of his 4-month-old son.
Jeremy Antonio Stokes, 27, was also sentenced to an additional 40 years - 20 years each on two separate counts of child cruelty.
During closing arguments in his trial on Thursday, prosecutors said Stokes jerked, bit and squeezed his infant son, Jeremiah Stokes, in March 2008, and ultimately caused the boy's death by asphyxiation. Shortly after 11 a.m., on Friday, a jury found Jeremy Stokes guilty of counts of malice murder and felony murder, two counts of cruelty to children and one count of aggravated battery.
In addition to a life sentence, Carter sentenced Jeremy Stokes to 20 years for breaking his son's arm and ribs, and a consecutive 20 years for biting the child's back and tearing the boy's frenulum - a piece of oral tissue connecting the upper gums to the inside of the upper lip. Jeremy Stokes also received a 20-year sentence on the aggravated battery charge, to be served concurrently.
Executive Assistant District Attorney Jason B. Green said the sentence was fitting, given the violent nature of the crime.
"It was expected," Green said. "The victim here was a 4-month-old baby ... he couldn't even stand on his own. It was cruel, it was unjustified and it was savage. He broke his child's ribs, he choked him to death, he bit him on the back. It was animalistic."
Before he was sentenced, Jeremy Stokes, and several of his relatives, asked the judge for leniency.
"I can't even believe this happened," Jeremy Stokes told the court. "It was never in my heart, even in my mind, to take my child's life. [Tamara Riley, the infant's mother] isn't the only one suffering."
Freddy Motin, pastor of United Bible Way Church in Stone Mountain, where Jeremy Stokes was a member, described him as a "faithful" and "loving father." He said that a week before his son's death, Jeremy Stokes was present at the church for his son's christening.
Jeremy Stokes' step father, John Victor Bryant, said Stokes, who bears a tattoo of his son's name on his neck, did not have the temperament to commit murder.
"I have raised him up since he was 3," Bryant said. "He was always a good boy. He doesn't have the characteristic to kill."
On Thursday, jurors returned guilty verdicts against Jeremy Stokes on charges of malice murder, felony murder, voluntary manslaughter, cruelty to children, and aggravated battery. Sentencing was delayed until Friday, however, because there is a legal problem with a person being convicted of both voluntary manslaughter and malice murder.
Jeremy Stokes' attorney, Melvyn J. Williams, said jurors grappled with the issue of determining whether his client intentionally killed his son.
"I still feel like there was no intent to kill," Williams said. "I think that is the issue that the jury struggled with. That is still my position ... obviously the jury felt otherwise.
"It was very tormenting for his family and my client because they didn't know what the jury was going to do when they went back," he added.
Prior to the sentencing, Riley, 21, the infant's mother, shared her thoughts with the court. She showed a picture of her child to the judge, and asked for the toughest possible sentence.
"Only God knows my pain," Riley said. "I miss my child so much. He was my soul and my heart. I want [Jeremy Stokes] to pay. He killed my baby. I want him to feel each and every day of pain for what he did to my child."
Lalaine Briones, a special prosecutor from the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, said the tearing of Jeremiah Stokes' frenulum was a telling sign that his murder was intentional.
"It is an injury that is highly suspicious of child abuse," she said. "You don't just fall on your face and break that."
Clayton County Chief Assistant District Attorney Erman Tanjuatco, who prosecuted case, originally sought a sentence of life, plus 60 years for Jeremy Stokes. He said he believes the punishment handed down by Carter was fitting of the crime.
"It was a systematic escalation of violence," Tanjuatco said. "That's what [Jeremiah Stokes] had to go through at the hands of his dad. For the amount of pain he has gone through, that was fair."