LEXINGTON — Jurors sentenced Timothy Jones Jr. to death Thursday for killing his five children in their rural Lexington County trailer in 2014, despite pleadings from his family and ex-wife to spare him.
"These five little babies finally got justice," Solicitor Rick Hubbard said after the five-week trial concluded.
In his closing argument, he told jurors to disregard family members' pleas, saying they're straining to believe an alternative reasoning for the crime's horrors because they can't accept Jones' brutal jealousy and manipulation that continues even from prison.
"Let the punishment fit the crime. Have you heard of any crime more horrendous than what you’ve heard?" Lexington County's chief prosecutor said in his closing. "Isn’t he the worst of the worst? ... He is a mass murderer. He not only took the life of a child, but five children who trusted him and called him daddy."
Defense attorney Casey Secor countered that a lifelong sentence would still severely punish Jones while showing mercy for a family suffering from unfathomable heartbreak. Sparing his life, Secor said, would send a message to Jones' loved ones that his actions are not their fault.
"Bestowing mercy on Tim, in this case, is bestowing mercy on the people who loved these children," Secor said in his brief closing.
There were no outbursts after the jury's recommendation was read. Jones showed no emotion. His father, stepmother and half-brother wept quietly in a pew behind him and put their arms around each other.
Deputies escorted them out separately before anyone else left the courtroom. They, along with defense attorneys, declined to speak afterward.
Judge Eugene Griffith officially ordered Jones put to death on Nov. 30, as per the timing set in state law. But that won't happen. Years, perhaps decades, worth of appeals are expected. South Carolina also currently lacks the ability to carry out an execution unless an inmate chooses to die by electrocution. Drug companies will no longer supply states with what's needed for lethal injections. By the time Jones' appeals are exhausted, however, that may not be an issue.
Jones' fate rested with the same jurors who found him guilty last week on all five murder counts after six hours of deliberations. They deliberated less than two hours Thursday. Their other option was life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Whether Jones killed his children — Merah, 8, Elias, 7, Nahtahn, 6, Gabriel, 2, and Elaine Marie, 1 — was never in question.
After his arrest in rural Mississippi in September 2014, he eventually confessed to killing them, detailing how he threw their bodies — wrapped in their own bedsheets — in the back seat of his Cadillac Escalade and drove around the Southeast with their decaying corpses for nine days before dumping them along a logging road in Alabama in separate black plastic garbage bags.
What investigators found inside the vehicle included scribbled notes on his plans to chop up and dispose of the remains, a saw, extra blades, bleach, an empty bottle of muriatic acid, as well as bottles of air freshener used in a vain attempt to mask the putrid smell while he slept and ate in the vehicle. Jones told authorities he cut into Nahtahn's leg but stopped, unable to go through with his written plans.
Hubbard scoffed at that explanation Thursday during his closing, saying Jones simply lacked the right tools — muriatic acid won't eat up a body like he assumed, and a saw intended for sheet rock can't cut bone.
A 'broken' brain?
Throughout the trial, defense attorneys have compared Jones' brain to a diseased forest that's on fire.
Jones claimed the accidental death of Nahtahn — from forced excessive exercise, he said — triggered him to panic and obey a gremlin voice inside his head by strangling his oldest two children with his hands and his youngest two with a belt.
But jurors rejected his insanity defense by refusing last week to find him not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill.
Authorities couldn't determine exactly how Nahtahn died, but Hubbard contended it wasn't overexertion.
Nahtahn "met white hot rage" over the sin of loving his mother, Amber Kyzer, and being a momma's boy after the couple separated in 2012 — of daring to scream out to her when she called to check in the night of Aug. 28, 2014.
"Mommy, I didn't mean to," were the last words she heard from her children before Jones cursed at her and hung up.
Nahtahn's plea angered Jones because he'd been trying unsuccessfully to get answers from the boy about a broken electrical outlet, and he was incensed Nahtahn admitted it to his mother and not him, Hubbard said, citing Jones' taped confession and Kyzer's testimony.
Instead of calling police after Nahtahn died, Jones downloaded and watched a movie clip about a brutal prison rape, fearful that would be his life in prison, then went to the store for cigarettes and took Merah with him, according to his confession and confirmed by online search records and a receipt.
"Why did he take Merah? Because that little girl would’ve gone for help," Hubbard said.
Once back home, Jones acted as the one-man judge, jury and executioner to his own children, Hubbard said.
According to Jones' confession, Eli was strangled first, after pleading with his dad to "take me with you." Next was Merah, who struggled and cried out "Daddy, I love you" as he kissed her goodbye while crushing her windpipe.
"He had to chase her down. What horror is going through her? ... He grabs Merah. He looks at her in the eyes. Does he give her mercy? She gives one final appeal, trying to find the dad in the beast who has her throat," Hubbard said. "He hears that and then crushes her neck, holds her until she is dead."
If there's any doubt about what the punishment should be, Hubbard said during his closing argument, "look in these bags. You'll find the answers." He held up envelopes containing law enforcement's photos of what officers saw when they opened those plastic garbage bags.
Earlier this week, forensic social worker Deborah Grey, hired by the defense to map out Jones' family tree, detailed a history of mental illness, sexual abuse, domestic violence, suicides and drug addiction going back several generations. Startling accounts included voodoo rituals practiced by his mother's father, who molested his daughters. Jones never knew him. The grandmother who helped raise him was molested by her stepfather starting at age 8, had Jones' father at age 12 and was viciously beaten until she escaped her abuser at age 17.
Grey chronicled the neglect and abuse Jones suffered from his schizophrenic mother — who lost custody and left the picture altogether when Jones was 2½ — and the violent episodes that brought police to the homes of his dad and grandmother. Despite this craziness, which was their normal, "there is a lot of love and caring there between these folks," Grey said.
Her narrative, researched over 500 hours, was meant to reinforce the defense's argument that Jones' mind was destined for madness, his bad genetics and turbulent home life compounded by a serious car accident at age 15 that left him with a fractured skull. During the guilt phase of the trial, jurors were shown images of Jones' brain, described by defense experts as "broken."
But Hubbard waved all of that away as excuses for Jones' bad personal choices. Voluntary drug and alcohol abuse, compounded only by Jones' brutal need to be the center of attention, are not excuses, Hubbard said.
"The suggestion is, by gosh, you mix all that together and, of course, he’s going to become a murderer," Hubbard said, pointing out that Jones' father and grandmother had much harder lives and never killed anyone. "He's not the product of a bad DNA milkshake. This is a guy who had gifts and he had five beautiful treasures. He has chosen to be what he is today, and that’s a murderer. He’d risen above the mire, and that family was so proud of him. He chose to be what he is."
The solicitor continually pointed to Jones' post-accident accomplishments. The first in his family to graduate high school, Jones went on to graduate summa cum laude with a computer engineering degree from Mississippi State University and secure a highly competitive job at Intel, which prompted his move to South Carolina in 2011 with his then-three children and now-ex-wife.
Defense attorneys painted Jones as spiraling downhill after the couple split in 2012 and divorced in 2013. Yet, in April 2014, months before the killings, Jones received a stellar job performance review and salary boost to $81,000. He took the children to Disney World and the beach that summer.
What happened on Aug. 28, 2014, wasn't mental illness but the culmination of his jealous rage — the gospel according to Jones of "you shall have no other love of anyone other than me," Hubbard said.
The court-appointed forensic psychiatrist, who testified in the guilt phase, concluded Jones was psychotic when he killed his kids, not because of schizophrenia but due to his increasing use of synthetic marijuana that summer. Dr. Richard Frierson, who wasn't paid by either side, said Jones was exaggerating and faking symptoms of schizophrenia to be able to live with what he did.
Family members' pleas
Attorneys' final arguments followed a parade of Jones' family members who pleaded for a life-long prison sentence, saying they can't take another death.
"I've already lost so many people in my life," said Travis Jones, who explained his older half-brother became a father figure to him when his parents divorced.
"Now I have to live with this constant fear," he said through tears Wednesday. "Please, please don't do that to me. Don't make my family have to endure this."
Other family members who asked jurors to spare his life included his parents, grandmother and two other siblings. All made clear how much they loved "the babies" — their collective term for the children — as they showed jurors photos and videos of them with the children in happy times, including the summer of 2012 when the then-four children lived with Jones' parents in Mississippi. However, they said, the horror of Jones' crime and the pain he's caused them don't diminish their love for him.
Julie Jones, his stepmother of 15 years, recalled falling to her knees in anguish when law enforcement called that night in September 2014 to say they'd arrested Jones but her grandchildren weren't with him. She remains grateful that authorities "helped us find the babies. They brought them home."
"I'm nervous and scared and hurt and want you to know how much these babies were my world. I would've done anything to find them," she told jurors.
Her testimony came two days after her husband, who helped investigators question his son to get a confession, took his shirt off to show jurors the tattooed images on his back of his five dead grandchildren.
After their memorial service in Mississippi, she said, Jones's father sat in front of the children's pictures in his office and cried "for hours and hours, day after day," for weeks at a time, talking about committing suicide to join them.
And yet, despite the heartache, her family may move to South Carolina to be near to Jones while he's in prison. She ended her appeal by giving jurors a practical reason to keep him alive: The man she considers her son can pay his debt to society by tutoring inmates, as he did his younger siblings, she said.
"He's smart. He's brilliant," she said, crying. "Think of how many people he could get GEDs for over the next 40 years. He still has a lot to give. He has so much to give. I love him."
Even Kyzer, Jones' ex-wife, called for mercy for the man who murdered her children, though for her it was more philosophical. She made clear she's long opposed the death penalty and can't bring herself to want anyone dead. But she repeatedly told jurors, while looking at them directly, that she's personally conflicted and will respect whatever decision they make.
In his closing, Hubbard pointed out Jones' family didn't talk about the last year and a half of the children's lives in their pleas. Jones's father was expecting a reunion that Labor Day weekend in 2014. They were supposed to be heading to Mississippi for a long weekend when they disappeared.
Jones had stormed out of his father's home on Christmas Eve 2012, angry over his father telling him to stop quarreling with his step-sister and his dad reading "The Night Before Christmas" to the children — which Jones objected to as fantasy. It took the elder Jones calling his son to arrange the visit that would never happen.
"He’s a baby. He’s a brat. He packed his kids up on Christmas Eve, deprived his family and children a Christmas, and drove to South Carolina. One year and eight months go by, he never once reached out to his daddy," Hubbard said.
Sentencing that man to life in prison would be the equivalent of sending spoiled "Timmy" to his room to think about what he'd done, he told jurors. He reminded them of a phone conversation played in court between Jones and his family — three months after his arrest — in which he continued to blame his mother, his dead 6-year-old child and ex-wife for the deaths. Anyone but himself.
After sentencing, Hubbard said what will forever haunt him is little Nahtahn, the focal point of his father's anger.
"He bore a lot for a long time. No child should ever have to go through what he went through and, because of what he went through, his father turned on his other children," Hubbard said. "It begins with that and ends with that."
T. Michael Boddie contributed to this report.