Teachers remembers kids killed by dad at death penalty trial
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Kindergarten teacher Johnathan Stone stopped sending frowny faces home with student Nahtahn Jones when he misbehaved because the boy would come back to school very emotional, saying he had to exercise for hours.
Five years later, Stone testified Friday in the sentencing phase of the death penalty trial for the father charged with killing Nahtahn and his four brothers and sisters. Stone said he has to change schools because he can’t stop seeing the boy, killed in 2014, walking the halls of Saxe Gotha Elementary school.
“I see him every day in his little white shirt with the pizza stains on it,” Stone said on the stand, crying. “I can’t stand to be at that school and see him in the halls every day.”
Jurors are hearing testimony as they decide if Nahtahn’s father, Timothy Jones Jr., is sentenced to death or life in prison without parole in the killings of his five children, ages 1 to 8, in their Lexington home in August 2014. The same jury convicted Jones of five counts of murder Tuesday.
Prosecutors called two teachers and a teaching assistant to the stand Friday to show the personality of Jones’ children. On Thursday, they showed jurors pictures of five trash bags, dumped on a hillside near Camden, Alabama, with small holes cut in them so investigators could confirm they had human remains before being taken for autopsies.
The jury also heard how each child died. In a confession, Jones said he exercised 6-year-old Nahtahn until he collapsed and died, then several hours later decided to kill the other four children. Jones said, and a pathologist verified, that 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.
Jones drove around with the bodies for nine days before dumping them in Alabama and was arrested at a traffic checkpoint in Smith County, Mississippi, by a deputy who testified about the horrible smell of decomposition in Jones’ vehicle.
Prosecutors rested their case in the sentencing phase Friday morning.
Jones’ lawyers called two witnesses Friday. Lexington County Sheriff’s Sgt. Barry Sowards testified Jones has never given him problems and is always respectful, even reminding his attorneys to stand for the judge when they are distracted.
Pastor Kerry Breen, who has counseled Jones since his arrest said Jones struggles to understand the Bible isn’t black-and-white and people can make mistakes and be forgiven. But he said Jones would be great at ministering to other inmates.
“I think we’ve seen plenty of men who did horrible things experience redemption,” Breen said. “They may not be able to be in society again, but they can have a beneficial influence on other men.”
Court ended early Friday because Jones’ lawyers scheduled most of their witnesses for Monday thinking the prosecution’s case would last longer.
The defense is expected to show how Jones managed to put himself through college with a wife and kids and land an $80,000-a-year job as a computer engineer as they try to humanize him and ask for mercy. They also expect to emphasize Jones’ mental problems , which they said included undiagnosed schizophrenia — the same disorder that left his mother in a mental hospital for more than two decades.
Stone’s teaching assistant also testified, saying she reported a bruise in the shape of an adult’s fingers she found on Nahtahn to social workers after he said his father threw him against the wall when he broke his younger brother’s toy.
A short time later, Amy Shearer said Nahtahn’s homework folder came back to school ripped in half. The boy told her his dad did it.
Nahtahn wore the same shoes his whole kindergarten year, even after they started getting huge holes. And no one showed up for his kindergarten promotion ceremony just three months before he was killed, Shearer said.
Shearer said she had nightmares for months after learning about Nahtahn’s death.
“I saw the bruises and I made a report and he’s not here today,” Shearer said crying.
She was wearing a necklace Nahtahn made her in church, an extremely special gift since the boy’s mother was kept out of their lives by Jones after leaving him because of his controlling ways.
“I loved him just a little bit harder,” Shearer said.
Elias’ first grade teacher also testified, saying he was a friend and tried to help everyone. Her photos of her happy elementary school class on crazy sock day or as they inspected how a sprout grew inside a lima bean were now exhibits in a murder trial, marked by number.
“I struggle daily. I see his friends. It’s hard. Some days are easier. But he is always there,” Jacqueline Moran said.
Moran cried as prosecutors gave her some of Elias’ schoolwork to keep after her testimony.
The trial is being livestreamed at the Lexington County courthouse.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP .