LEXINGTON — Timothy Jones Jr.'s "mind was broken" when he killed his five young children in 2014 at their trailer in rural Lexington County, his attorney Rob Madsen told jurors Tuesday in his opening arguments explaining a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
But Deputy Solicitor Shawn Graham argued excuses don't equal insanity.
"A father is supposed to protect his children. Timothy Ray Jones Jr. is not a father," Graham said. "He's not insane. He's a murderer."
Jones is charged with five counts of murder. According to arrest warrants, Jones told authorities he had feared his children — ages 1, 2, 6, 7 and 8 — “were going to kill him, chop him up and feed him to the dogs.”
Madsen repeatedly compared Jones' brain to an unhealthy forest, with trees diseased by a traumatic childhood that included a mother institutionalized with schizophrenia, an auto accident when he was a teenager that damaged his brain, drug and alcohol abuse, compounded by the stress of his job, divorce and custody of his children.
He has since been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has been taking a "plethora" of psychotropic drugs since his arrest, the public defender told jurors.
"Tim's forest was on fire" as he killed his children over five hours on Aug. 28, 2014, Madsen said. "Tim’s forest is diseased, decimated, and burning," and he did not understand right from wrong — legally or ethically, he said.
Madsen said the Navy diagnosed Jones years earlier with a mental health disorder, kicking him out of boot camp and ending his dream of becoming a Navy SEAL, which sent him on a downward spiral and resulted in him going to prison, where he found religion and gained control of his life through memorizing passages in the Bible.
It's that warped view of religion that will explain why Jones thought the "rod was love," Madsen said.
"He memorized vast amounts of Scripture, but his social and emotional abilities are such that even though he could read it, he couldn’t understand its meaningful application," he said.
Jones met his ex-wife Amber while working at an amusement park in Chicago after he got out of prison. They married soon afterward. They were doing well for a while as he went to school. But the marriage crumbled after they moved to South Carolina for his job at Intel, and his emotional instabilities came back. In the summer of 2014, just months before killing them, he took the children to Disney World, Madsen said.
"He was trying to hold it together to be a loving father. He knew something was wrong and was trying to fix himself," he said.
The children were last seen alive when Jones picked up the three oldest from an after-school program at Saxe Gotha Elementary School in Red Bank and the two youngest from a baby sitter. They were killed at their trailer in Red Bank outside Columbia.
"He killed a 6-year-old child in a rage. Six years old," Graham said, his voice quavering — causing the only objection of the day.
After collecting himself, Graham told jurors that Jones then strangled his two oldest children with his bare hands and "took a belt to the babies, taking their life away from them as he strangled both of them."
Jones rode around in his Cadillac Escalade with their bodies for nine days, traversing across the Southeast, until ultimately dumping their bodies off a logging road in Alabama. He was arrested at a DUI checkpoint in Mississippi where police said they found blood, maggots and children’s clothes in his SUV.
September will mark five years since Jones, 37, led officers back to the bodies of his five children: Merah, 8; Elias, 7; Nahtahn, 6; Gabriel, 2; and Elaine Marie, 1.
Graham said the multi-state flight is proof Jones knew right from wrong as he tried to save himself. He hinted at the evidence to come, saying jurors will learn of Jones' internet searches over his cellphone and a clipboard found in the vehicle that listed ways he planned to dispose of the bodies.
But Madsen countered that the post-killing trek, after he wrapped their bodies in blankets, was about Jones thinking he could continue spending time with them.
"He wasn’t ready to let them go," he said. "He even played them songs."
After jurors left the room, the reason for Madsen's objection became clear, as he publicly asked for a mistrial, saying the prosecutor was crying. Judge Eugene Griffith declined, saying he didn't see any tears, and that Graham was able to continue without his voice getting "shaky" again.
Solicitor Rick Hubbard said it's silly to expect an emotionless trial.
"Everybody in here is a human being. Even lawyers are going to be touched. We’ve been carrying a lot on our shoulders and souls," he said. If the defense objects every time emotion is shown, "it's going to be a long, slow trial."
The jury of 10 women and eight men, chosen over the past two weeks, will begin hearing from witnesses Wednesday morning. The trial could last several weeks.