A juror in Tim Jones’ death penalty trial began to sob Thursday morning after being shown photos of garbage bags containing the killer’s five dead children, bringing an already emotional Lexington County trial to a temporary halt.
She and the other jurors were led from the courtroom until she recovered on the first day of the trial’s penalty phase during which Jones, 37, will either be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.
The day was marked by tears from others too, including prosecution witnesses and people in the audience in one of South Carolina’s most horrific crimes in recent memory.
At times, convicted child killer Tim Jones — a single father whom the jury found guilty on Tuesday of killing his five children, ages 1-8 — also sobbed, wiping his tears with a thick wet handkerchief as prosecutors flashed photos of his smiling children on a large screen.
Prosecutors played two videos, which Jones had apparently sent via text message to his estranged wife Amber, that showed two of the children, weeping, with the oldest, Merah, 8, crying through sobs, “Please, mommy ... Please, mommy.”
The second video showed Elias, 7, begging his mother to come home. Prosecutors hope to use those videos to show how cruel Jones is.
In this second and final phase, Jones, 37, now guilty and eligible for the death penalty, is fighting for his life.
Prosecutors Rick Hubbard, Shawn Graham and Suzanne Mayes are putting on witnesses they hope will show the jury that Jones is a demonic murderer, with no redeeming qualities, who killed his five children — innocent and full of promise — and should be put to death. To do so, they need a unanimous verdict from all 12 jurors.
“You’ve heard things no one should ever have to hear,” Mayes told jurors in a brief opening statement in which she recalled each of Jones’ children, including oldest daughter Merah, who pleaded for her life as he strangled her. “She begged him, ‘No, no, no.’ She looked him in the face and said, ‘Daddy, I love you’. He took her life anyway and put her in a trash bag.”
“This is not about vengeance. It’s about a punishment that truly fits the crime,” Mayes told jurors.
“Throughout this trial, you have heard evidence that is so brutal, so callous, so vicious, that you can only describe it as evil — a clear and unmistakable evil,” Mayes said. “In this case, the appropriate sentence is death.”
In the defense opening statement to jurors, attorney Boyd Young, who acknowledged there’s no excuse for what Jones did, got right to the point.
“You don’t have to kill Tim Jones,” he began, stressing that the jurors’ five guilty verdicts of murder already mean Jones “will never walk free again. He will die in a prison cell.”
To get a life sentence, all defense lawyers need is to convince just one juror that Jones should not be executed. Young repeatedly reminded jurors that any one of them can determine — for any reason — that Jones should not be executed, and that will mean a life sentence. He reminded jurors that if any one of them comes out for life, the others cannot bully or browbeat that person.
“You said you would respect each other’s right to (choose a life sentence),” Young told jurors, adding that he hoped “mercy” and “grace” — words that might resonate with Christian jurors — would play a part in deliberations. “The decision about whether a person lives or dies is ... an extremely individual choice.”
The defense will likely put on witnesses who tell the jury that Jones now has his mental issues under control, has been a model prisoner and will be in a position to help other inmates, Young suggested. “God can use people in dark places,” he told jurors.
The prosecution’s first witness, former State Law Enforcement Division Lt. David Lawrence, told the jury about being on the scene on Sept. 9, 2014, when Jones, having confessed to the crime, led a team of FBI, Mississippi and South Carolina police officers to a remote hillside in a vast Alabama forest where he had deposited his five decomposing children’s bodies in garbage bags under some fallen trees in a brushy area.
Jones, who was traveling for nine days around South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi with his children under blankets in his SUV, had put the bodies there before being arrested at a routine traffic stop in central Mississippi on Sept. 6, 2014. At the time, a nationwide police bulletin had been broadcast for him and his children.
On Thursday, prosecutor Hubbard had Lawrence play a video he had taken while walking to the site with the body bags. Then, Hubbard showed jurors photos taken that revealed parts of the children’s bodies in each bag.
That was when one juror, an elderly woman, turned her face away and apparently began sobbing. Hubbard asked for a recess, and Judge Eugene “Bubba” Griffith sent the jury from the room.
The crying prompted defense attorney Young to demand a mistrial, telling the judge the woman had been “sobbing uncontrollably” — a display of emotion that could unfairly affect the jurors’ judgments. Hubbard protested, saying “She was not sobbing uncontrollably There was no wailing, no noise. She was very quiet about it.”
Hubbard also reminded the judge that at the beginning of the trial, jurors had been told facts in the case would generate high emotion.
Griffith denied the motion for a mistrial, made sure the juror could continue and the trial resumed.
In other prosecution evidence Thursday:
▪ Jurors heard a taped phone call, made after Jones’ arrest, between Jones and his father, in which Jones says his ex-wife, Amber, is responsible for his killing his children, starting with Nahtahn, 6. Jones killed the boy first after he became convinced Nahtahn was hiding something from him. “That is what caused me to snap ... We can blame Amber for that one ... If she had been home, I would not have gotten to this point ... She caused the whole thing,” Jones said in the conversation two months after his September 2014 arrest.
S.C. inmates’ phone calls are taped and can be used as evidence. This conversation was made two months after Jones’s September 2014 arrest. Prosecutors will use it to show Jones’s lack of remorse and avoidance of responsibility.
▪ Dr. Janet Ross, who performed the children’s autopsies, described what happened to the bodies in the wilderness. Eli, 6, was wearing a T-shirt with a school motto: “The Power of One at Saxe Gotha Elementary.” His brother, Nahtahn, was wrapped in a Ninja Turtles comforter.
▪ Former Saxe Gotha assistant principal Janet Ricard testified how lovely the three Jones children were at her school and how she had taken a special interest in helping Eli, who loved bugs and frogs, to learn to read. The children were bright, made friends easily and were well-liked, she said. Merah won awards for her academic gains.
“Eli was a special little fellow and really just wanted to please ... everybody loved him,” testified Ricard, who wept during much of her testimony.
After the children died, one of the teachers, an accomplished artist, painted a mural on several walls at the Saxe Gotha school library, Ricard testified, that featured sand dunes, a beach called Jones Beach with five sets of footprints and five happy, big-eyed turtles swimming under sea. The turtles have the Jones’ children’s names on them - Merah, Eli, Nathahn, Gabriel and Elaine. The beach scene were chosen because Merah, Eli and Nahtahn were always talking about going to the beach, Ricard said.<bullet> Babysitter Joy Lorick, who also wept, told the jury that each child was special in their own way, and the children all loved each other.
After the prosecution finishes, which could come as early as Friday, the defense team will put witnesses on the stand to show that Jones was mentally impaired when he killed the children and is a worthy candidate for a life without parole sentence in a maximum security prison.