Three months after one of South Carolina’s most bone-chilling trials — the death penalty case of a Lexington County father who killed his five, young children — jurors remain haunted by what they saw and heard.
“I think about it every day,” said a 52-year-old woman with the initials, L.A., who served as an alternate juror until being excused near the trial’s end. “Many times during the trial, I went in the jurors’ bathroom and just wailed – cried my eyes out.”
Jurors have stayed silent since June 13, when they unanimously voted to put Tim Jones Jr. to death for the 2014 murders of his children in the family’s Red Bank home. They endured some of the most harrowing testimony ever uttered in a S.C. courtroom — testimony that left veteran police officers and news reporters, seated in the court room, blinking back tears and recoiling in horror at the parade of gruesome evidence.
Since then, nine of the 18-member jury panel have spoken to The State Media Co. about their life-changing experience. The trial left some traumatized, some seeking counseling — and all of them bonded to one another in a way that’s hard for outsiders to understand. At least one juror now has a small tattoo memorializing the children, jurors said.
They did not want their names used for this article. Some feared retaliation from Jones’ allies, while others just wanted to be left alone for what was for them a shattering experience. The State has instead used their initials, nicknames and juror numbers.
Each was affected differently.
One juror, a University of South Carolina School of Medicine employee, said he only thinks about it “on occasion. It has not affected me as it has others.”
But most said the trial’s trauma has stayed with them. An alternate juror who is an Air Force veteran said repeated testimony from law enforcement officials about “the smell of death” from the Jones children’s decomposing bodies triggered flashbacks.
“I smelled death in Bosnia, and since then, I’ve had nightmares about it,” said the 50-year-old woman, who participated in unearthing mass war crimes graves in Bosnia. The testimony upset her so much, she went to the Dorn VA Medical Center for therapy with a counselor, she said.
The trial “brought it back like it was yesterday,” she said.
The jury’s leader, a 39-year-old Lexington County woman referred to as “Madam Foreperson” by the judge, was outwardly calm the whole trial.
But, “I got home with my family that loves me and broke down. My husband’s like, ’What are you doing? You don’t cry,’” Madam Foreperson said.
The idea that jurors’ mental health can suffer by hearing horrific testimony is not new to Dawn McQuiston, a psychology professor at Wofford College in Spartanburg.
It is called “secondary trauma,” McQuiston said, meaning that people who sit on traumatic cases, such as those involving child killings, can need counseling themselves. Such stress is akin to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and can involve symptoms such as sudden crying, nightmares, anxiety and depression.
“The people typically selected for jurors — they’ve never seen or heard such graphic details before. You can only imagine the shock to their system,” McQuiston said.
Professional counselors can help traumatized jurors because they are trained to clarify issues and offer suggestions about how to deal with psychological distress, she said.
South Carolina has no state law mandating counseling services be offered to jurors in trials that deal with events like child murders. However, in federal courts in South Carolina, counseling can be offered by judges in traumatic cases free of charge.
After the jury’s death verdict, state Judge Eugene Griffith spent 40 minutes with them in the jury room, listening and thanking them for their service. He handed out brochures on where they could find counseling services, drawn up with help from Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon, whose department routinely offers counseling to officers who undergo stressful situations.
Jurors came to call themselves Team 18 — 12 jurors and six alternates. “Team” did not mean they all thought alike — it meant that alternates as well as the jurors were enduring a shared awful experience over long days, they said. Not until late in the trial, when the first phase finished and they prepared to deliberate on Jones’ guilt or innocence, did Judge Griffith tell them who was a juror and who was an alternate.
They were a cross-section of Lexington County, ranging in age from their 20s to their late 60s and pulled from ordinary walks of life. Most were white. They included a roofer, a minister, a University of South Carolina School of Medicine employee, a computer expert, three paralegals, office workers, a teacher and an Air Force veteran. Many had children; some had grandchildren.
Today, they remain united, supporting each other and keeping in touch through a group chat on their cellphones.
None were ready for what they heard.
Day after day, prosecutors aired gruesome evidence about how the children — “some of the most beautiful children you will ever see,” said a prosecutor — were murdered and how Jones planned to cut up their bodies and dissolve them in acid.
Meanwhile, defense lawyers presented days of testimony portraying Jones and his family as a stew of malignant dysfunctions, for generations rife with incest, madness, suicides, crime, domestic violence, religious fanaticism and alcohol and drug abuse. With that background, and his family genes, he was doomed to go mad and therefore was not responsible for his actions, defense lawyers said.
“There wasn’t a day when I didn’t drive home and say to myself, ‘I cannot believe I’m in the middle of this’,” said one juror, 67. “It was every day.”
Trial repeatedly stopped
Almost every day, trauma halted trial.
One day, a juror began to sob when prosecutors showed the jury photos of black garbage bags containing the decomposed bodies of the children, tossed in an Alabama woods by Jones.
Another time, the dead children’s mother, Amber Kyzer, erupted in anguished shrieks as she testified about the last letter she wrote her daughter.
Still another time, prosecutor Rick Hubbard was showing the jury one of the dead children’s favorite dolls, Woody from the movie “Toy Story.” The doll had been ripped to shreds by an enraged Jones to torture 6-year-old Nahtahn, prosecutors said.
As the doll was passed to the jury, its prerecorded voice, activated by still-live batteries, chirped, “Boy, am I glad to see you!”
Jurors flinched. Judge Griffith sent them out.
Jurors later said it was like getting a message from Nahtahn, whom previous testimony had described as loving his Woody doll more than anything.
The judge also recessed trial after FBI agent David Mackey played an audio tape of Jones describing the step-by-step executions of his children, beginning with how he killed Nahtahn first by making him do military-type exercises to the point of fatal exhaustion. Then, Jones said he strangled the other four, using a belt to kill the youngest two last because their necks were too small. As he choked Merah, 8, to death, her last words were, “Daddy, I love you.”
Teachers and a former principal of Saxe Gotha Elementary School, where Nahtahn, Eli and Merah attended, testified how Nahtahn was behind academically and was so pleased to graduate at the end of the school year. But neither of the child’s parents came to his kindergarten graduation.
“It broke all of our hearts. ... I remember going home the day of that testimony, and I cried all the way home,” one juror said. “I was so upset because that child (Nahtahn) didn’t have anybody because nobody was there. He didn’t have anybody.”
Another juror said, “Those teachers were more parents to these kids than the people who gave them life.”
Another piece of evidence that broke jurors’ hearts was a video of Jones picking up his children from an afterschool program just hours before he murdered them.
In that video, Jones’ daughter, Merah, runs to her father and says, “Daddy, are you feeling better?”
How they coped
Jurors were under orders not to discuss the trial as it went on. Not with their families. Not with each other.
That was frustrating, jurors said. They could not talk about the one thing they had in common – the horror unfolding before their eyes.
To relieve the pressure, some jurors during breaks went in the bathroom adjoining the jury room and closed the door.
“You could hear them sobbing through the walls,” one juror said. “And after some testimony, walking back to the jury room, you’re teared – you’re teared.”
Jurors told each other about their personal lives. They stayed away from politics.
“You take a group of strangers, and you put them in a room for six weeks, we had to share things… . That was one of the ways we got to know each other,” said the juror who works at USC School of Medicine.
Jurors passed time during breaks by peering out the fourth-floor courthouse jury room windows. They saw little dramas: a man taking off his shirt in the parking lot getting ready to fight, traffic going the wrong way down a one-way street and a couple getting married in the courthouse courtyard.
“We cheered when the groom kissed the bride,” said Madam Foreperson. “All 18 of us had our hands pressed against the windows when we saw them get married. It was like ‘Yay, something nice happened.’ ”
They gave each other nicknames: Sparkles, Blondie, Polka Dot — referring to fellow jurors’ hair color and clothing. They dubbed Prosecutor Hubbard “House” because his square-jawed looks resembled actor Hugh Laurie, who plays the doctor House on TV. They noticed when he wore cowboy boots.
Bestowing nicknames was an emotional survival tactic, said alternate juror, L.A. “We took this very seriously. We did not want this thing overturned.”
Madam Foreperson said she found comfort on getting home each night, even though she couldn’t talk about the trial. “Therapy for me was going home and hugging my kids.”
Looking out the windows was all part of “anything not to talk about the case,” one juror said.
Court officials did what they could to ease the burden.
Judge Griffith let the jury go by 5:30 or so each day so some jurors could pick up their children. He decided not to hold court on Saturdays, which judges sometimes do in long trials. He praised the news media for its accurate accounts of the trial.
Lexington County Clerk of Court Lisa Comer made sure the jurors had coffee, fruit, soft drinks (one juror liked Coke Zero) and muffins when they arrived each morning. A pack of plainclothes SLED agents convoyed the jurors to lunch each day to places like Lizard’s Thicket, Hudson’s Smokehouse Barbecue, Cribb’s Sandwich Shop and Groucho’s Deli, calling ahead to make sure jurors would have a place to eat away from other customers.
“You could see them wearing emotion on their faces,” Comer said. “I could come down to my office and talk to my chief deputy about the trial. I could cry. I could vent. They couldn’t talk about it.”
Comer also secured a parking area in a garage under the courthouse so they could use a private courthouse elevator without worrying about being accosted.
Now and then, jurors would tell themselves, “We’ve got to be strong.”
Once, after Judge Griffith sent them from the courtroom when a juror began crying, other jurors told their shaken colleague to “suck it up if you want to stay on the jury.” She did.
“The last thing anybody wanted was a mistrial, which would cause a retrial. In the end, if we didn’t do it, somebody else was going to do it,” Juror 272 said.
Some jurors were suffering. One because she had to skip regular medical treatments to relieve pain. Others worried about finances since they weren’t being paid or had to start working weekends.
“There were people on the jury living paycheck to paycheck. Fifteen dollars a day (a juror’s daily stipend) doesn’t go very far. Some employers weren’t paying them,” said one juror in her 60s, who is a homemaker. “There were single parents and young men with families – it was a hardship.”
Despite financial stress and time away from family, jurors said they realized it was their duty to serve and they didn’t shirk it. Still, some said it was ironic that while the court deems jury duty vitally important, jury pay doesn’t begin to compensate for the financial stress some underwent.
One juror remains angry at the family and societal safety nets that failed the Jones children.
“Our village should be ashamed of itself,” she said.
This juror, a middle-aged woman, said she remains “outraged” at trial evidence showing so many people – teachers, neighbors, Jones’ family, the S.C. Department of Social Services – knew the five children were in danger but failed to take decisive action that would have saved the children’s lives.
“I still remember their names. Merah was 8, Eli was 7, Nahtahn was 6, Gabriel was 2, Abigail – or Elaine – was 1,” said the juror, uttering each name with great sadness.
Was a trial necessary?
There didn’t have to be a death penalty trial. A jury didn’t need to be chosen.
Jones’ attorneys had repeatedly filed motions saying Jones would plead guilty in return for multiple life-without-parole sentences.
Had there been a guilty plea, there would have been no trial, no jury. Not nearly as many details about the crime and Jones would have been made public.
But to 11th Circuit Solicitor Rick Hubbard, allowing Jones to plead guilty would have been a travesty. Hubbard, a assistant prosecutor for 23 years who was elected chief 11th Circuit solicitor, or chief prosecutor in 2016, has participated in numerous murder and death penalty trials.
“If this wasn’t the case for the death penalty, we don’t need a death penalty,” Hubbard told The State after the trial. He and his team of prosecutors studied the case for five years.
“We came to the conclusion, ‘My God, this is just wickedness’.” Hubbard said. “Nothing compares with the murder of five kids.”
His decision meant jurors would hear every detail. The prosecution would present a case for death, and that would be countered by the defense trying to convince at least one juror to vote for life. All it would take for Jones to receive a life sentence would be for one juror to vote no to death.
“You can’t present this case without presenting the horror,” Hubbard said.
“Who do those children have? That’s us. As prosecutors, we represent the state, but we also speak on behalf of the victims. The trial was the opportunity to let their voices be heard,” Hubbard said.
If Jones had gotten a life sentence, Hubbard said, “as much as I might disagree, I would have known that the people in this community heard this case, heard it fully, and I can live with what a jury does.
“For me, I could not live with a decision not to seek the death penalty.”
In his last argument to the jury, Hubbard took just 25 minutes. Looking the jurors in the eyes, he slowly repeated , “A child should feel safe in his father’s arms.”
That line, jurors said, resonated with them.
These days, Hubbard keeps a new Woody doll on a shelf in his office.
“It kind of became the image of the case for us. We knew it all started with Nahtahn, and that was his doll, and it meant so much to him. And the doll kind of represents all the children,“ Hubbard said. It represents the good part of their short lives, ”when they were alive, and when they were happy, and why we fought so hard in this case.”
Defense lawyers were deeply affected too. They had spent years learning about Jones, his family and trying to craft a strategy to save his life.
“At the end of the day, I feel as though I failed the people who loved those children the most,” said defense attorney Boyd Young. “I was unable to provide the outcome and closure that the surviving victims (of Jones’ family) desperately wanted.”
Jurors had two major decisions: Was Jones sane? Did he deserve death? Yes, they said to both.
Jurors stressed their decisions were based on the facts of the case and their common sense.
They said key evidence included:
▪ Testimony from a psychiatrist that Jones knew right from wrong and was not delusional when he killed his children. “He made a ... conscious choice to kill them,” said Richard Frierson, a court-appointed psychiatry professor at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine with 30 years’ experience examining criminals’ mental health issues.
▪ A phone call, recorded by S.C. prison authorities, during which Jones blamed the killings on his ex-wife “We can chalk this up to Amber – if she’d been here, this wouldn’t have happened,” Jones is heard saying to his father on the phone call, made two months after his 2014 arrest.
“Zero remorse,” said Juror 272, a paralegal in a criminal defense firm.
“He won’t take ownership of his actions,” the juror from USC School of Medicine said.
▪ Jones’ taped confession to police on how he killed each child.
We paid attention to that,” said one juror, a middle-aged woman. “We played it – stop. Played it – stop. We listened to every word he said.” That convinced jurors Jones was acting coldly but deliberately.
Jurors said they considered defense evidence of the extreme dysfunction in Jones’ family during his childhood and teen years, including a mentally ill mother and several members who committed suicide.
But, said juror 272, “Of all those people, only one had chosen to kill – and that was Tim.”
After they reached their decision for death, they said a prayer for the Jones family and for all who had been hurt by the violence. After they gave the verdict, they left the courthouse, driving out of the underground garage for the last time.
Juror 272 arrived home and sat down to watch the news. When a reporter announced Jones had gotten the death penalty, he said, “I lost it. My kids jumped in my lap and just hugged me.”
The trial has inspired jurors to spend more time with their children, be kinder to everyone and avoid anger. “Take time with your kids because there’s a lot of darkness in the world. Bring your children up so they don’t grow up to be Tim Jones Jr., “ said Juror 272.
They have no second thoughts about giving Jones death.
“It wasn’t hard to do the right thing with Tim Jones. He wasn’t crazy. He was evil,” said a middle-aged woman juror.
A 67-year-old juror said before being chosen for the jury, she doubted she could cast a death penalty vote.
But she voted for Jones’ death. “I did the right thing,” she said. “Those children had no voice but us.”
The USC School of Medicine juror said, “We didn’t give Tim Jones Jr. the death penalty — he earned it.”