COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina father convicted of murdering his five young children should die because he made them suffer in a carefully thought-out plan that would leave no witnesses and help him avoid prison, prosecutors said Thursday.
But a lawyer for Timothy Jones Jr. asked the same jurors who convicted him two days earlier to have mercy and choose life in prison without parole because “God could use people in dark places.”
The sentencing phase of Jones’ trial started Thursday with brief opening statements, then took a 30-minute break after a juror started crying hard as the first witness showed the five trash bags found on a hillside near Camden, Alabama, with the bodies of the children inside.
Jones’ children ranged in age from 1 to 8.
Also on Thursday, prosecutors showed short cellphone videos of three of the children sent to their mother by Jones after he left her, saying she could no longer stand how the strictly religious Jones treated her as his inferior.
In the videos, the children are crying or sad, begging their mom to come back. Jones was taken out of the courtroom crying after the videos were shown.
Prosecutors played a tape of a phone call Jones had with family members from prison four months after the killing. During the call, Jones blamed the killings of the children on his anger over his ex-wife, Amber Kyzer, who he said cheated on him with a teenager who lived next door. Jones won sole custody of the kids.
“We blame Amber on this one. If she had been home doing what she was supposed to do instead of bopping the boy next door, none of this happens,” Jones said on the call.
Several days of emotional testimony are expected. Prosecutor Suzanne Mayes promised to tell the stories of each of the children and what made them unique.
She also warned there would be graphic descriptions of what the children went through, calling it torture.
Jones, 37, confessed to forcing 6-year-old Nahtahn to exercise until he died as punishment for breaking an electrical outlet in their Lexington home in August 2014.
Prosecutors called it painful and torturous: several hours of jumping jacks, pushups and other calisthenics.
After finding his son dead, Jones debated what to do for several hours — watching a prison rape scene from a movie and heading to a store for cigarettes with his oldest child while leaving the others at home with the body, he told investigators during his confession. He then decided to kill the rest of the kids. Jones said he strangled 8-year-old Merah and 7-year-old Elias with his hands and used a belt to choke 2-year-old Gabriel and 1-year-old Abigail because his hands were too big.
“He wasn’t going to leave any witnesses alive,” Mayes said.
Jones’ lawyer reminded jurors they have to unanimously choose the death penalty or Jones will get life without parole.
“You don’t have to kill Tim Jones. You don’t kill people who are sick,” Boyd Young said, reminding jurors of extensive testimony over three weeks of the trial that Jones may have had undiagnosed schizophrenia made worse by using synthetic marijuana.
Young asked jurors to try to see Jones as a fragile human being who could help people in prison if his life was spared. Jones put himself through college while married with children, landing an $80,000-a-year computer engineer job in Columbia.
Young also asked the jury to think about Jones’ family and all of their suffering.
“I think Tim’s family has seen enough death. That’s a reason for life for me,” Young said.
Defense attorneys gently cross-examined the witnesses.
Babysitter Joy Lorick described the children as blessings who made even bad days brighter. At Young’s request, Lorick identified the children in about two dozen family photos, many of which showed Jones smiling or hugging and kissing his kids.
Jones himself wiped away tears as prosecutors showed a video of an assistant principal at Saxe Gotha Elementary School helping Elias with his reading.
The school painted a mural of five turtles, each named for one of Jones’ children. The assistant principal, Janet Ricard, said the school chose turtles because at the end of one school day, a teacher found one in Elias’ pocket.Ricard was amused and amazed it managed to survive.
Ricard said she took a special shine to the boy because he was living with a single father.
“He was a special little fellow — really just wanted to please,” she said.
The sentencing phase is expected to last several days.
The trial is being livestreamed at the Lexington County courthouse.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP .