LEXINGTON — A jury found Timothy Jones Jr. guilty on Tuesday of murdering his five young children in 2014 at their trailer in rural Lexington County, setting up the next phase of whether he'll face a death sentence or life in prison.
Jones showed no emotion as the foreman read the jurors' decision of guilty on all counts following about six hours of deliberation.
After the jury filed out, Jones patted the shoulder of leading public defender Boyd Young and nodded.
There were no outbursts in the audience either. Jones' father, who had testified in his son's defense, half-brother and step-mother all quietly left the courtroom.
The sentencing phase will begin Thursday.
It's impossible to tell from a guilty verdict what a jury will decide in sentencing. But the evidence presented already could make it easier for the defense to argue for life imprisonment, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.
If jurors were hearing about mental illness for the first time in the sentencing phase they might be more likely to dismiss it, he said. But in this case "they've already looked at it and said, 'It does not excuse the defendant.' Now they are freed up to look at it without the fear of it being an abuse excuse," Dunham said.
Whether Jones killed his children — Merah, 8, Elias, 7, Nahtahn, 6, Gabriel, 2, and Elaine Marie, 1 — was never in question.
Jones confessed and led authorities to their bagged and decaying bodies, left along a logging road in Alabama, following his arrest in rural Mississippi in September 2014. His attorneys argued Jones was legally insane — that he didn't know right from wrong — on the night he strangled at least four of them. Exactly how the middle child died remains unclear.
Jones insists Nahtahn 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. He then strangled the oldest two with his bare hands and the youngest two with a belt because his hands were too big for their tiny necks, he told investigators.
The Tuesday verdict followed 14 days of trial and testimony from nearly 60 witnesses — 32 called by prosecutors and 26 by the defense.
Experts who testified included Dr. Richard Frierson, who as a court-appointed psychiatrist wasn't representing or paid by either side. Frierson interviewed Jones for a total of 19 hours over six days since 2016.
The forensic psychiatrist concluded Jones knew it was legally and morally wrong to kill his children and was faking and exaggerating the symptoms of schizophrenia to live with what he did. Frierson instead diagnosed Jones with substance-induced psychotic disorder caused by his escalating use of synthetic marijuana in the months before the killings.
Jones told Frierson he had a "wake and bake" habit, smoking up to five times a day.
The defense painted a portrait of a mind destined for madness by bad genetics — Jones' mother has been institutionalized with schizophrenia for decades — and abuse and neglect in the early years when his brain was forming. He also grew up amid domestic violence in his dad's and grandmother's home, and a serious car accident at age 15 left him with a fractured skull.
The defense's many high-paid experts apparently didn't sway jurors. Their other options were not guilty by reason of insanity, guilty but mentally ill or not guilty. For Nahtahn only, there was an additional option of manslaughter.
In his closing argument Monday, Solicitor Rick Hubbard mocked the high tab of a forensic psychiatrist from Atlanta who diagnosed Jones with schizophrenia after seeing him a total of 3½ hours.
"Is he worth that 25 grand to you? Did you get your money’s worth out of that?" Hubbard said, asking jurors to consider whether each expert was searching for the truth or just making a case for the defense.
The defense-called psychiatrist who could weigh more heavily in sentencing was Beverly Wood, a state Department of Corrections employee who prescribed Jones' medications since shortly after his 2014 arrest. Prosecutors discounted her "working diagnosis" of schizoaffective disorder as based on what Jones said he was experiencing once imprisoned.
Her unpaid opinion may matter more in the next phase, Dunham said.
During his closing argument Monday, Young stacked up bags of pills representing the medication Jones has taken over the past 4½ years.
Wood "may add credibility that he's a seriously ill defendant who should not be executed," Dunham said. "Once the jury’s made the initial judgment that a defendant’s guilty and they know they can sentence him to life without parole, at the very least it becomes easier for them to give" more credence to the mentally ill arguments.