Crime & Courts

Inside the battles that mark jury selection for Tim Jones’ death penalty trial

If someone has murdered multiple children, “is death the appropriate punishment or not,” defense attorney Boyd Young asked a potential juror Tuesday ahead of the trial of accused child killer Tim Jones.

The potential juror, a stocky Lexington County man in his mid-30s, breathed deeply before replying.

“If there is no reasonable doubt, and all the evidence is there, and it’s been proved murder, I think it should be the death penalty,” he said. Earlier, he had said he believed in “an eye for an eye” and “a life for a life.”

That answer vexed 11th Circuit Solicitor Rick Hubbard, who is seeking the death penalty for Jones, accused of killing his five children in 2014. Jones is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, though there is virtually no question he killed the children.

The man had earlier told Circuit Judge Eugene “Bubba” Griffith that he would hear all the evidence and give Jones a “fair and impartial” trial, no matter what the circumstances.

The judge sent the man out of the courtroom. An annoyed Hubbard told Griffith that the potential juror “had started out to be fair” but now the defense was trying to “lead him down the primrose path” to get him off the jury because he had just indicated he was predisposed to give Jones the death penalty.

So it went, back and forth for more than two hours Tuesday afternoon with just that one juror. More than half a dozen times, the judge sent the man out of the courtroom as lawyers argued about his answers and whether they should disqualify him from the jury. To be on a death penalty jury, a juror must be able to consider multiple possible sentences.

Tuesday’s exchange highlighted the high stakes involved in picking each of the 12 jurors involved in the trial, when even one juror can be critical in deciding whether Jones lives or dies.

“He is substantially impaired in his ability to follow the law,” Young told the judge. “Even one juror who is improperly qualified could cause this case to be reversed.”

Hubbard shot back, “He came into this courtroom. ... He wanted to hear both sides, all the facts.” Hubbard reminded Griffith that the potential juror had also said he would respect the opinions of other jurors and give great weight to whether a killer showed remorse.

Shortly before 6 p.m., the judge ruled. “I think he should be qualified.”

That man, whose identity is being withheld because The State newspaper does not identify jurors during trials, was the first and only potential juror seated so far. The slow pace indicates it may be weeks before Jones’ trial starts. Judge Griffin is trying to get a pool of approximately 45 or 50 potential jurors.

Such a large pool is needed because it must account for 12 jurors, up to six alternates, and potential jurors who are disqualified by either the prosecution or the defense.

Griffith said Tuesday that once Jones’ trial starts, it could last into June.

Jones, 37, is charged with the killings of his five children — Merah, 8; Elias, 7; Nahtahn, 6; Gabriel, 2; and Elaine, 1 — in August 2014. After strangling or beating them to death, he is alleged to have put their bodies in garbage bags and driving to rural Alabama, where he hid their corpses in a woods.

On Tuesday morning, U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Sherri Lydon and assistant U.S. Attorney Nate Williams dropped by the Lexington County courthouse to observe what sort of questions lawyers would ask prospective jurors.

Lydon is expected to be one of the trial lawyers in the upcoming federal death penalty trial of Brandon Council, who is accused of executing two women while robbing the CresCom Bank in Conway in 2017. It would be Lydon’s first death penalty trial, but Williams was on the prosecution team in the death penalty trial of Charleston church killer Dylann Roof.

Also dropping in to observe was State Circuit Judge Robert Hood, who is scheduled to preside over a state death penalty trial on Monday in Horry County in a case involving killings during convenience store robberies.

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John Monk has covered courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A U.S. Army veteran who covered the 1989 American invasion of Panama, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death penalty trials, including that of the Charleston church killer, Dylann Roof, and that of child killer Tim Jones.