Convicted child killer Tim Jones Jr. must die.
That was the unanimous verdict of a Lexington County jury of seven men and five women who passed final judgment Thursday in one of the most horrific criminal trials in South Carolina in recent memory.
The jury took only one hour and 50 minutes to return its sentence.
Last week, the same jury found Jones, 37, guilty of five counts of murder in the August 2014 deaths of his five children — Merah, 8; Elias, 7; Nahtahn, 6; Gabriel, 2; and Abigail Elaine, 1 — at the family’s Red Bank home in Lexington County.
Jones, a single father who earned more than $80,000 annually as a software engineer, showed no reaction when the sentence was read. He will now join 37 other convicted killers on South Carolina’s death row in Columbia. Those killers have only one or two murder convictions each. Jones has five.
The verdict came on the trial’s 21st day after more than 60 witnesses testified for the defense and prosecution. While state Judge Eugene “Bubba” Griffith formally sentenced Jones to death on Nov. 30, there will likely be years of appeals before the state carries out the death sentence. Moreover, like some other states, South Carolina is currently unable to procure the drugs needed for lethal injection.
On Thursday morning, 11th Circuit Solicitor Rick Hubbard gave his final argument to the jury, portraying Jones as a selfish, cunning man with a warped view of Christianity who quoted Scripture to bully his children, then brutalized them and deliberately strangled them.
Speaking sometimes in a whisper, sometimes in a shout, sometimes bending his upper body toward the jury, Hubbard called Jones a “monster” and a “mass murderer” for whom the death penalty is fitting because it is reserved for “the worst of the worst” — a phrase Hubbard repeated throughout his argument.
“Is there any crime more horrible than what you have heard about when you came into the courtroom?” Hubbard asked the jury, recalling teachers’ and others’ testimony that depicted the Jones children as “some of the most beautiful kids you will ever see ... Is there any crime worse than this ... He chose to be a murderer.”
Defense attorney Casey Secor acknowledged the extreme nature of Jones’s crime to the jury.
“What happened to these children can never be justified in any way,” Secor told the jury. “We agree that these are horrific crimes.”
But to bestow mercy upon Jones, Secor said, is actually bestowing mercy on Jones’ father, stepmother, two brothers and sister — all of whom testified earlier in the week. The family members told the jury they were heartbroken at the children’s deaths, but still loved Jones and wanted his life spared.
Repeatedly, Secor reminded jurors that only one of them was needed to vote for a life sentence and if any individual juror felt life was the right sentence, he or she had the power to block a death sentence.
“Blessed are the merciful,” Secor told jurors, quoting Jesus in the Gospels. “Let mercy be your first concern. You can punish Tim severely with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole ... The heartbreak of this family is unfathomable. There do not have to be any more deaths.”
In his argument, Hubbard too channeled the Bible to describe the stern way Jones practiced his Pentecostal faith.
“This is a man who says, ‘I’m Mr. Christian’.... He used Scripture for control. The Bibles were bricks. He would beat them over the head with it,” said Hubbard, smacking his hands together loudly and shouting, “You will do right.”
Paraphrasing the Biblical sayings, Hubbard shouted, “You shall have no other love for anyone other than me ... I will not be shared with anyone! I will have your full devotion or you shall feel my wrath! The Word according to Tim!”
Hubbard ridiculed testimony by defense witnesses, including psychologists and psychiatrists, that Jones was the product of a hellish upbringing in a dysfunctional family and was genetically disposed to severe mental illness.
“The only pattern you see is bad choices. He (Jones) is not the product of some DNA milkshake,” said Hubbard with scorn. “He has chosen to be what he is today, which is a murderer.”
After Thursday’s verdict, Jones’ family members, who hugged each other and sobbed, had no comment to reporters.
Boyd Young, one of a team of defense lawyers that included Robert Madsen and Secor, said “there will be an appeal. We think there are a lot of issues to work with.”
Thursday’s audience included a half-dozen teachers from Saxe Gotha Elementary School in Lexington who had testified earlier for the prosecution about how loving and earnest the three eldest Jones children were. The teachers were among the first to report to the S.C. Department of Social Services, several months before the killings, that Nahtahn had been choked so hard by his father that it left bruises on his throat.
The trial was never a who-done-it. Jones’ confession to police and other incriminating statements by him were played to the jury during the trial’s first week. Jones claimed that Nahtahn was the first to die after he forced the child to perform rigorous exercises as punishment on Aug. 28, 2014.
After what Jones claimed was the boy’s accidental death, he thought his only choice was to kill the others, who were in their beds, Jones said. He then went from child-to-child, methodically choking each one to death, using a belt on the two smallest because their necks were too small to get his hands around.
Autopsies confirmed the four younger children were strangled to death while an autopsy of Nahtahn was inconclusive.
Hubbard reminded the jury that Jones was especially angry at Nahtahn, who wanted to live with his mother following his parents’ separation. And on the night of Aug. 28. 2014, Jones went into a “white hot rage” after Nahtahn’s mother made her regular nightly phone call. Nahtahn began talking to his mother, upsetting Jones who had been trying to persuade the child to tell him why he had blown electrical outlets in the home, Hubbard said.
In the sentencing phase, jurors rejected the defense’s request for a sentence of “life without parole” for Jones who, his attorneys say, is schizophrenic.
The sentencing brings to an end a highly emotional trial. One day, prosecutors played the chilling taped confession of Jones who explained, step-by-step, how he murdered his children. Another day, prosecutors put Jones’ anguished ex-wife, Amber Kyzer, on the stand, who wailed for her lost children, halting the trial for 30 minutes. Still another day, defense lawyers had Jones’ father, Tim Jones Sr., stand in front of the jury and remove his jacket, tie and shirt, showing tattoos on his back of his dead grandchildren.
A parade of witnesses told jurors about Jones’s extended family’s struggles with mental illness, incest, alcoholism, parental abandonment, child rape, divorce, child abuse, Christian fanaticism, drug abuse, and demonic possession.
Jones chose not to testify during the trial.
Kyzer, said through one of her attorneys, Hyman Rubin, Thursday that she had wanted mercy for her ex-husband “even for somebody who did something as horrible as that, and that life in prison was the better punishment. But the jury has spoken and everybody has to respect that.”
In a press conference held in the courtroom after the verdict, Hubbard, standing with his fellow prosecutors Shawn Graham and Suzanne Mayes, Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon and two law officers from Mississippi who helped cracked the case, said, “Justice was done.”
“There’s not been a day or night when I haven’t thought about this case,” Hubbard said. “Those five little babies finally got justice ... They’ve been on our minds and hearts and today’s the day they got justice.”
Asked what he found especially unforgettable, Hubbard thought a minute and said, “Nahtahn ... He was the focal point. That little 6-year-old 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 those other children. It begins with that, and it ends with that.”