LEXINGTON — The defense of Timothy Jones Jr. began Wednesday with jurors poring over scans of the killer's brain and listening to a recording of his ramblings after leading authorities to the bodies of his five children.
Neuroradiologist Travis Snyder testified the 37-year-old, who killed his children in 2014 but has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, has a large depression in the front of his skull, along with several brain hemorrhages under the fracture and other abnormalities caused by "at least moderate if not severe" traumatic brain injury. Jones' attorneys have said he was in a serious car wreck at age 15.
"You don’t have to be a neuroradiologist to see it’s not normal," Snyder said in his pre-recorded testimony, shown on screens in the courtroom. "This is from an old trauma, no question."
But the Las Vegas-based doctor made clear he could not say how the abnormalities affected Jones specifically, as symptoms can vary widely.
And, though some symptoms are permanent, "many symptoms actually get better," or — in the case of dementia or Parkinson's disease — may not surface for decades. Also, Snyder said, while some of Jones' brain irregularities "suggest a positive correlation" with schizophrenia, an MRI cannot diagnose the disorder, and there's no medically accepted research linking a brain injury to the mental disorder.
His attorneys say Jones is a schizophrenic, undiagnosed at the time, whose self-medication with drugs and alcohol fueled his paranoia.
"How traumatic brain injury manifests can be very different in different patients and hard to predict based on imaging," Snyder said. "It's possible for someone with brain abnormalities to be relatively normal."
Jones faces the death penalty for killing his children — ages 1, 2, 6, 7 and 8 — on Aug. 28, 2014, in their rural Lexington County trailer. Jones does not dispute killing them or driving around the Southeast with their bodies piled in the back seat of his Cadillac Escalade for nine days before dumping them in plastic bags on the side of a logging road in Alabama.
Snyder's testimony about Jones' brain trauma juxtaposed with evidence from prosecutors Wednesday that Jones, an Intel computer engineer who graduated from Mississippi State with honors, showed off his acceptance letter to a Caribbean medical school in texts nine days before killing his children.
Two days before their deaths, he searched online for how to win tuition grants. His babysitter testified last week that Jones told her he chose the Caribbean school because it was much cheaper than a domestic university.
In May 2014 — three months before the slayings — Jones searched online for the movie trailer to "A Beautiful Mind," a 2001 film about a schizophrenic genius, as well as for details on schizophrenic behaviors. He then texted his ex-wife to say their oldest child, Merah, is "saying some creepy stuff," prosecutors showed before resting their case on day seven of the trial.
After leading authorities to the bodies, Jones again insisted while riding back to Mississippi — where he was arrested — that he didn't know how 6-year-old Nahtahn died, other than by accident from exhaustion after Jones made him do exercises in an unsuccessful attempt to get answers about what he did to several electrical outlets in the home.
Finding him dead brought out voices in his head that prompted him to strangle his other four children, he repeated.
"I got upset, but I didn’t grab him and kill him, no," he said in the recording played Wednesday by the defense. Things the voices said included, "Why don’t you just cut them up and feed them to the hogs?" he said. "Where does this come from? I don’t like these thoughts coming out of my head."
Later on the drive home, Jones said, "The thought that someone can take a human life and not feel remorse scares me," said Lexington County Sgt. Mark Creech, called as a witness for the defense.
In his many hours with Jones, the sergeant added, "He seemed clear at every point that he knew what he did was wrong."
Autopsies of the badly decomposed bodies could not conclude how Nahtahn died, other than an "unknown homicide," Creech said.
"See, I told you so! I don’t know how he died," Jones told Creech after he told him the results.
That contradicts with prison officers' testimony Tuesday that Jones blurted out as he was processed in a maximum-security unit in Columbia that he strangled his son in anger over blown electric sockets.
Creech said he told Jones he did the right thing in taking authorities to the bodies so the children could have a proper burial.
"What do you mean I did the right thing?" Creech said Jones responded. "I killed my (expletive) kids!"