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Man spared prison in baby's death

Like a church, the courtroom where Jeffrey Henderson awaited his fate Wednesday echoed with impassioned testimonials and murmurs of agreement from a crowd of believers sitting shoulder to shoulder on hard, wooden pews.

In a somber black suit, the man who was once charged with first-degree murder in the shaking death of his 11-week-old daughter listened and wept.

When it was over, Henderson, who had pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter, walked out of the courthouse and into the arms of his family with a sentence of probation and community service.

"I did not shake my daughter the way they said I did," said Henderson, a 32-year-old meter reader for Tampa Electric Co. and singer in a Christian music group. "I felt that what I did was the right thing at the time that I did it. And if that is guilty of manslaughter, then I am guilty."

Henderson was alone at his Valrico home with his first-born daughter, Sydney, the evening of Feb. 3, 1996, while his wife was out shopping. Prosecutors say he shook the baby so violently that her brain began to bleed, ultimately causing her to stop breathing.

But Henderson said he shook Sydney in a desperate attempt to revive her after she went from fussy to rigid to limp and unconscious. His attorney Manuel Machin said Henderson was following the first of a list of CPR instructions posted in the kitchen: Shake the baby to get a response.

At his first-degree murder trial in June, jurors deliberated while Henderson and his supporters prayed in the courtroom. But the jury could not resolve the image of the loving, churchgoing family man with that of a person who could shake a helpless infant with enough violence to kill her. They deadlocked after more than four hours, with at least eight jurors saying they believed Henderson's testimony that he shook her gently to revive her from a seizure.

His supporters inundated the state attorney's office with a petition bearing hundreds of signatures and dozens of letters on his behalf. Prosecutors, who had previously offered to let Henderson plead guilty to manslaughter in exchange for five years in prison, made another offer: With a guilty plea to manslaughter, the state would not object to any sentence, including probation. Henderson's wife said she got the news of the prosecution's decision in a message left on her answering machine from the state attorney himself, Harry Lee Coe.

"In light of the circumstances, we thought that we weren't afraid of giving it to a judge and letting him make the decision," said prosecutor Christopher Moody. "We trust the bench in this county."

Circuit Judge Bob Anderson Mitcham took himself off the case, saying his wife knew one of the doctors involved, and it fell to Circuit Judge Dan Perry.

The state made no sentencing recommendation Wednesday, though prosecutors reminded the judge that doctors had used the words "violent, vigorous or severe" to describe the shaking Sydney took and said that Henderson had once before admitted to shaking the baby after she rolled off a couch.

Then it was Henderson's turn.

From an infant in a car seat to an elderly woman with a cane, from sisters to preachers to attorneys, more than 100 people packed the small courtroom on his behalf, cramming into pews, filling the jury box, standing in the aisles and spilling into the hallway.

"For every one person that's here, there's 20 or 30 more that couldn't make it," said his friend Bruce Turner.

He was described as a son of working-class parents, a former high school valedictorian, gifted student, athlete, churchgoer, doting husband and musician who once sang the National Anthem on a stage with President Clinton. His attorney gave the judge pictures of a proud father ready to cut the umbilical cord of his just-born daughter.

"I know that man's guilty of nothing," said attorney Arthur Springer. "Sydney was his life."

His wife, Courtney Henderson, said she did not doubt her husband. "That was my daughter, my first born, and I loved her more than anything," she said. "I don't think anybody in this room is going to be a supporter of a man who would harm or murder a child."

Finally, Judge Perry sentenced Henderson to serve six years of probation and to perform 500 hours of community service educating people about the dangers of shaking infants. Henderson cannot have unsupervised contact with children younger than 3 years old, including his own 5-month-old daughter, Hannah.

With the sentence, the courtroom burst into applause. Henderson wiped away tears, as did his attorney, Machin.

"I think the judge made a considered and wise decision," Moody, the prosecutor, said afterward.

Henderson and his wife fell into each other's arms and sobbed.

"It was me today," Henderson said. "It could be anyone.

"I know that I did not try to harm my daughter."