LEXINGTON — Timothy Jones Jr.'s grandmother testified Friday she never imagined he would harm his children, as she recounted him saying on their last visit, weeks before he killed all five: "Grandma, I can't be without my babies."
Roberta Thornsberry said she tried to convince Jones to let her and her husband take the two youngest, not yet in school, back to Mississippi with them.
Upon meeting in Atlanta for an overnight visit in August 2014, Jones was oddly drenched with sweat. She was shocked by his weight loss and that her grandson, so entrenched for the past decade into his own oddly strict interpretations of the Bible, was drinking and smoking cigarettes.
"I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it," Thornsberry said, her voice trembling. "I never would’ve let him take those kids if I thought they were in danger."
Jones faces the death penalty for killing his five children — ages 1, 2, 6, 7 and 8 — on Aug. 28, 2014. He confessed to throwing their bodies into the back of his Cadillac Escalade and driving around with them for nine days before dumping them in separate plastic bags along a logging road in Alabama. He was arrested at a traffic checkpoint in rural Mississippi while — he later confessed — meandering his way to Las Vegas to gamble.
He is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. His attorneys argue he has a schizophrenic disorder, undiagnosed at the time, and he was responding to the voices in his head. A forensic psychiatrist testified Thursday that schizophrenia is highly hereditary.
Thornsberry was called by the defense to talk about Jones' family trauma and abuse by his biological mother, whom she described as "nutty, crazy as a bedbug."
When Jones was an infant, his mother would dress him in flannel in 90-degree heat, bathe him in cold water and feed him laxatives, saying "his body had to be cleansed." Other times, she wouldn't feed him at all because "she didn't want a fat baby," said Thornsberry, who once found her ex-daughter-in-law hiding in a closet, cutting up their clothes.
“She didn’t act like a mother. He’d be screaming and crying. She wouldn’t let me in the door. ... Timmy would be laying in the bed drenched in urine."
Thornsberry said she was the closest Jones had to a mother. When he was nearly 2, she had his biological mother arrested for trying to kidnap him by crawling out of Thornsberry's window with him and over the fence. By the time he was 2½, his mother was institutionalized with schizophrenia in Syracuse, N.Y., gone for good, and Thornsberry kept him while her son worked.
"He cried a lot about not having a mom," she said.
Much of the defense testimony so far has focused on Jones' traumatic brain injury from a serious car wreck when he was 15. MRI scans and 3D imaging show a large depression on the front of his skull.
Earlier Friday, neuropsychologist Erin Bigler, a retired Brigham Young University professor, schooled jurors on what a brain should look like — taking apart a plastic model as he spoke — compared to Jones' "misshapen" brain.
Such trauma can affect a patient's moods, emotions and cognitive skills, he said.
But on cross-examination, Bigler acknowledged he could not say how the abnormalities affected Jones specifically.
"He has a broken brain. That's all I can show," he said.
When Solicitor Rick Hubbard counted off Jones' accomplishments after the wreck — including earning a computer engineering degree, with honors, and working at Intel — Bigler responded that a high IQ can influence the brain's ability to recover, as the brain, like any organ, is designed to heal itself and adapt.
Thornsberry seemed to stick more holes in the defense's arguments for her grandson, the first in his family to graduate from college, who she said was "always smarter" than his classmates and cousins.
Asked whether Jones changed after the wreck, she said, "Not really. ... My son assured me the doctor said he was OK."
Pressed further, she said, "He was different after the wreck, but I think that's because he got in trouble with his dad. He was getting older. He was a teenager."
And while his childhood was turbulent, as police were also called to her home for a shooting and drug possession, it was "more good than bad," she said.