Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Southeast woman was found guilty Wednesday of killing her four daughters in a case that brought nationwide horror and exposed deficiencies in multiple layers of bureaucracy designed to protect D.C. children.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick H. Weisberg convicted Banita Jacks, 35, on three counts of premeditated first-degree murder, four counts of first-degree child cruelty and four counts of first-degree felony murder. The judge acquitted her of one count of premeditated murder in the death of her oldest child, Brittany, because he could not rule out suicide.

Jacks faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole.

Presiding over a packed courtroom, Judge Weisberg took great time delivering his verdict on the 12 counts. The ruling clearly weighed heavily on the judge.

“It’s so difficult for anyone to put their mind around that a parent could kill their child,” he said at one point.

Jacks displayed no emotion as she left the courtroom after the verdict was read.

After the trial, one of Jacks’ attorneys told reporters that he sympathized with his client.

“I feel bad for Jacks,” said Peter Krauthamer, her court-appointed attorney. “We didn’t get the result we wanted.”

Mr. Krauthamer said he is committed to getting his client as little jail time as possible.

“We’ll pursue every appellate avenue available to us,” he said, and did not rule out raising questions about Jacks’ sanity - something she had previously rejected.

Another of Jacks’ attorneys told the judge in a bench conference Monday that a new medical report indicated Jacks may not have been competent at the time she declined an insanity defense.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Deborah Sines and Michelle Jackson said they were pleased with the ruling but regretted the horrific nature of the crimes.

“No one comes out of this courthouse happy,” Ms. Sines said.

She said prosecutors were not disappointed with the finding of not guilty on one count of premeditated first-degree murder, because she said the charge of first-degree felony murder established Miss Jack’s guilt in Brittany’s death.

Jacks was arrested in January 2008 after U.S. marshals found the decaying bodies of Brittany Jacks, 16; Tatianna Jacks, 11; N’Kiah Fogle, 6 and Aja Fogle in the second level of her house. The discovery was made while serving an eviction order at her row house in the 4200 block of Sixth Street Southeast. The bodies of the three youngest girls were laid out facedown, side by side on the floor in one room, while Brittany’s body was on the floor in a different room, according to the affidavit.

Prosecutors said the girls had been dead for at least seven months at the time they were found. All that time, Jacks lived with the decomposing bodies.

A large knife was near Brittany, and what appeared to be blood was found on the floor.

Jacks told investigators she did not feed her children for a “substantial period of time prior to their deaths” and that the children “began dying in their sleep one at a time, all within a seven- to 10-day period.” She also told investigators that they were “possessed by demons.”

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty fired six employees of the city’s Child and Family Services Agency. Officials said five city agencies - including CFSA - had contact with the family before the girls were killed.

Jacks was found mentally fit to stand trial in January. She waived her right to a jury trial. Judge Weisberg decided the case himself after a two-week trial.

The judge ruled beyond reasonable doubt that Jacks, “whether by desperation or hopelessness to take them out of their misery” or some other hidden reason, committed the murder of her three younger children by ligature strangulation. He also found that the murders occurred in one incident.

“The evidence is virtually overwhelming,” he said.

The judge said their deaths “occurred at a time when they were almost certainly weakened by deprivation and starvation.”

Judge Weisberg could not definitively rule that Jacks stabbed Brittany to death. He found her guilty of first-degree felony murder and first-degree child cruelty, which he said undoubtedly helped bring about Brittany’s death.

“The other acts of torture, emotional and physical harm perpetrated by the defendant against Brittany were surely acts of cruelty that contributed to her death,” he said.

The judge found that Jacks committed the murder of Brittany in a separate incident, citing evidence that Brittany died quite a while before the others.

The court set an Oct. 16 sentencing date. After Jacks whispered to her attorney, Mr. Krauthamer asked the court to move the sentencing date to November. Mr. Krauthamer accepted the October date after he failed to provide the court with a reason to postpone the sentencing.

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