LEXINGTON — The defense of Timothy Jones Jr. rested its case Friday following psychiatrists' contradictory testimony on whether the 37-year-old knew right from wrong when he killed his five young children in 2014.
That question is key to jurors' decision in his death penalty case. Lawyers will make their closing arguments next week.
Jones, who decided not to testify, does not dispute killing his children — ages 1, 2, 6, 7 and 8 — in their trailer in rural Lexington County in August 2014. He is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. Jurors could also choose guilty but mentally ill or just plain guilty. If they decide the latter, he could be sentenced to death or life in prison.
Forensic psychiatrist Julie Dorney of Atlanta said she diagnosed Jones with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of thought and mood disorder — specifically in his case, bipolar disorder.
"He was not able to organize his thoughts. He had manic symptoms. There's a psychotic component and a manic component to Tim," said Dorney, the last of the defense's 26 witnesses. "He’s a very religious man who’s mentally ill."
Her conclusions differ from the court-appointed psychiatrist's. Dr. Richard Frierson, who wasn't paid by either side, testified Thursday that Jones was faking schizophrenia "so he could live with what he did."
Frierson said Jones had substance-induced psychotic disorder when he killed his children, due to the synthetic marijuana he was smoking in increasing frequency that summer, along with depression.
Dorney, who acknowledged her tab exceeds $30,000, said the drugs exacerbated Jones' underlying illness.
According to Jones' confession, 6-year-old Nahtahn died first. Authorities weren't able to conclusively determine how. Jones insists the middle child died in his bed following sets of push-ups, sit-ups and squats that Jones made him do in an unsuccessful attempt to get an explanation for why several electrical outlets were blown.
Nahtahn's death sent the divorced father into panic mode. He figured he'd be blamed and imprisoned — and that prompted voices in his head telling him to kill the other children, according to his confession.
He strangled the oldest two with his hands and the youngest two with a belt, he said.
Dorney concluded that Jones didn't know he was legally wrong in killing Nahtahn, based on his strong belief that he was justified in how he punished his children and didn't realize the excessive discipline would do harm. And he couldn't distinguish moral right from wrong in killing the other four, she said. In his thinking, that was a better option than having them grow up in the foster system, as he expected to be imprisoned and figured his ex-wife didn't want them, she said.
Jones had sole custody of the children and, according to testimony, his ex-wife often went months without seeing them.
"He believed they'd be better off in heaven. He wanted to send them to the other side," where there's no pain or suffering, Dorney said.
"He says he was so anxious and agitated and confused, he didn't think about that," Dorney said.
But Frierson said there's a big difference in Jones feeling morally justified and knowing it was morally wrong. He concluded Jones knew legal and moral right from wrong in all five killings, noting that, according to Jones' online computer searches and his own confession, he feared after Nahtahn's death that he'd be labeled a "baby killer" and sexually abused in prison.
Frierson also pointed to Jones' flight across the Southeast, attempts to hide the evidence and lies he initially told authorities after his arrest in rural Mississippi as indications he knew what he did was wrong.
Jones eventually confessed to tossing the children's bodies in the back of his Cadillac Escalade, wrapped in their own bed sheets, and riding around with the decomposing corpses for nine days before dumping them in separate black plastic bags along a logging road in Alabama. Along the way, he scribbled some macabre plans on a clipboard.
One list read, “Day 1: burn up bodies, Day 2: sand down bones, Day 3: MB :) dissolve and discard.” Frierson said Thursday that Jones told him "MB" stood for "Mexican border."
In a 45-minute confession played in court, Jones told authorities he began cutting Nahtahn's leg but couldn't go through with it.
Both Frierson and Dorney noted that Jones told them his oldest child, Merah — whom he strangled first — struggled.
"He said he told her he loved her and would see her again in heaven," Dorney said.
Frierson said it was evidence of Jones' determination.
"Someone else might stop and think, 'What am I doing?' It would take several minutes to strangle somebody, even a child," Frierson said.