An S.C. prison guard testified Tuesday that confessed child killer Tim Jones said he killed his 8-year-old daughter after she walked into a bedroom in the family’s home and discovered him strangling one of her brothers to death.
Jones told the guard, Lt. Travis Pressley, that he then grabbed his daughter, Merah, and “choked her ‘til she turned purple,” Pressley testified on Tuesday, the sixth day of Jones’ death penalty trial in the Lexington County courthouse. He is charged with killing his five children: Merah, Elias, 7; Nahtahn, 6, Gabriel, 2 and Abigail Elaine, 1.
Pressley did not name the daughter during his testimony, but Jones’ oldest child was Merah, 8. His only other daughter, 1-year-old Abigail Elaine, would not have likely been walking around on the night of Aug. 28, 2014, when Jones killed his five children in his Red Bank mobile home.
“He said that when he saw the daughter, she was shocked — and I guess, I don’t know, she tried to run away or what — he grabbed her and choked her so hard ...” testified Pressley, who works at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia.
Jones, 37, a divorced Christian fundamentalist with strict ideas on marriage and child-rearing, has already admitted to killing his five children in a taped confession played last week to the jury and now faces the death penalty.
Pressley’s testimony on Tuesday seemingly contains new assertions — that Nahtahn was strangled to death instead of accidentally dying from excessive exercise and that Merah walked in on one of the murders, which triggered her killing.
In that confession, made Sept. 9, 2014, three days after Jones’s arrest in Mississippi, Jones admitted to an FBI agent and a Lexington County detective that he killed five children. But he didn’t say he killed Merah after she interrupted her brother’s killing.
Instead, Jones said that after finding son Nahtahn, 6, unexpectedly dead in his bed, he methodically went about killing his other four children by strangling them in their beds.
Pressley’s testimony did not name the child Jones was purportedly strangling when Merah walked in. Pressley began by saying that Jones was upset at one son whom he thought had tampered with the homes’ electrical outlets and quoted Jones as saying he had killed that son by choking him with a belt because his (Jones’) hands were too large to get around the little boy’s neck.
However, in the confession aired last week, Jones denied strangling Nahtahn with or without a belt, claiming instead he found Nahtahn dead in his bed after making him do strenuous PT (physical training). In the confession, Jones admitted choking the two youngest children to death with a belt because their necks were too small for his “big hands” to get a strangling grip on them.
On Monday, pathologist Janice Ross testified that Nahtahn could have died by dehydration after so much PT but death from strangulation was also possible. She examined the body more than a week after he had been killed and was unable to make a firm finding other than that he, like all the children, had died from “homicidal violence.”
Also testifying Monday was another prison guard, Ben Boyd, whose testimony supported a version of events where Jones was strangling Nahtahn when Merah walked in.
Boyd testified he heard Jones say that “his son was just messing with the light socket and he grabbed him and he choked him ... then he said while he was choking his son, his daughter came in the room, and that was the last part I heard.”
However, both guards acknowledged they were not conducting formal interviews with Jones at the time, a lot was going on in the prison around them and their written accounts of the incident were done more 30 minutes later from memory.
Jones interacted with the prison guards on Sept. 12, 2014, after being brought back from Mississippi to South Carolina. Officials didn’t want to keep Jones in the Lexington County jail, so they transferred him to Kirkland Correctional Institution, the state’s “Supermax” highest security “prison within a prison” facility on Broad River Road in Columbia.
When Jones came in to the Supermax, manacled and beginning to be processed for his prison stay, he began crying and said he was sorry, Pressley testified. “I guess reality kicked in to where he knows where he is.”
The day’s last prosecution witness, Lexington County sheriff’s department digital forensics expert Michael Phipps testified about the contents of Jones’s cell phone in the form of web searches, texts and phone calls.
Phipps, the prosecution’s 32nd witness so far, testified that on the eight days on and after Aug. 28, 2014, the day he killed the children, Jones received dozens and dozens of messages and calls from his ex-wife Amber Kyzer, relatives, babysitters, staff members at the children’s school, Saxe Gotha Elementary, and Jones’ boss at Intel, asking where he was and entreating him to get in touch. He responded to only a few.
During his days on the run, Jones traveled around the Southeast with the bodies of his five children under blankets in his Cadillac Escalade SUV. He eventually dumped their bodies in a remote forest in Alabama before being arrested by chance at a routine traffic stop in Mississippi.
Before and after killing the children, Jones made numerous Internet searches, Phipps testified.
The searched topics include “Facing Legal Problems - where do you run?” and which countries lack extradition treaties with the U.S. Jones also searched for landfills, dumps and businesses that sold synthetic marijuana. He also looked up a movie trailer for “A Beautiful Mind,” a 2002 Academy Award winning movie whose main character has schizophrenia — and various web sites about that mental disease, Phipps testified.
Jones also Googled the song lyrics for Styx’s “Renegade,” during which a man facing execution wails, “Oh mama, I’m in fear of my life from the long arm of the law ...”