By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009
It was a case that horrified and baffled the Washington region and the rest of the nation: What could cause a mother to kill her children, then live with their decomposing bodies for nearly seven months? And how could government agencies have failed to realize that something in the home had gone seriously wrong?
D.C. prosecutors hope some answers will become clear starting tomorrow, when Banita Jacks is scheduled to go on trial in D.C. Superior Court on charges of killing her four daughters in their Southeast rowhouse.
The deaths have changed how city agencies deal with social work cases, especially those involving children. D.C. officials say they also have highlighted the critical need for neighbors, relatives and school employees to have contact with families with young children.
"There were so many other points of contact before the police that could have saved these children's lives," Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said recently. "This shouldn't have happened."
The bodies were discovered Jan. 9, 2008, when federal marshals descended on Jacks's two-story home in the 4200 block of Sixth Street SE to carry out a standard eviction. Jacks, who had lost nearly 100 pounds and was gaunt from dehydration and hunger, tried to stop the marshals from entering, court records show. When they got inside, they found religious scribbling on the walls and the bodies of her four daughters, Brittany Jacks, 17, Tatianna Jacks, 11, N'Kiah Fogle, 6, and Aja Fogle, 5, in an upstairs bedroom. Authorities said the girls had been dead since the summer of 2007.
Jacks, 35, told police that she did not kill the girls and that they died in their sleep "one at a time" over a 10-day period, charging documents said. Jacks said the girls were "possessed with demons" and referred to her oldest daughter, Brittany, as a Jezebel, the wicked biblical character.
Memories of the scene still haunt many officers. "I will never forget seeing those four body bags being taken out of the house," Lanier said.
At least five D.C. government agencies had contact with Jacks while she and her daughters lived a chaotic life. But the agencies, including the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency and the public schools, never shared information with each other, and no follow-up investigations were done. Three months before the girls' deaths, a school social worker called the city's child welfare hotline after Jacks refused to allow her into the house to check on one of the children who had missed a month of classes.
Days after the bodies were found, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) fired six social workers involved in the case. "The District failed this family and these young girls. This shouldn't have happened, and we're seeing to it that it doesn't happen again," Fenty said. The workers are appealing their dismissals.
Those who have seen crime scene photos said there was little flesh or muscle tissue on the girls' bodies when they were found. The bodies were so badly decayed that prosecutors had to consult with four medical examiners, including one from the Department of Defense, as well as FBI specialists and a forensic anthropologist to determine the causes of death. Eventually, prosecutors said Brittany had puncture wounds on her abdomen; a knife was found near her body. Aja was strangled and beaten, according to prosecutors; the other two children had been strangled.
Lawyers involved in the case are precluded from commenting by a court order. But defense lawyers not involved say the causes of death are critical in linking Jacks to the killings. Even though Jacks was found living with the corpses, some lawyers say that is not enough to prove she killed the girls.
"Sure, it's easy to conclude that because she was found in the house, she did it. But there has to be actual proof that she did it," said lawyer Heather Pinckney. "Did someone else have the keys to the apartment? Did anyone see Jacks kill the children? There has to be proof that she had malice in her heart to kill her children. We may never know what really happened."
Onlookers might have to wait a little longer to learn more details of the case. On Wednesday, Jacks's attorneys asked Judge Frederick H. Weisberg for a delay to give them more time to test some "small sections of skin" found on the remains that were tested by prosecutors, court documents show. Weisberg will rule on the request tomorrow.
Weisberg, and not a jury, will decide Jacks's fate. Fearing that her attorneys might be unable to find jurors who had not heard about the highly publicized case, Jacks waived her right to a jury trial.
Lawyer Nikki Lotze, also not involved in the case, said Jacks might have had a better chance of an acquittal with a jury than with a judge.
"You're more likely to get one out of 12 to side with you than one out of one, especially when that one has been sitting on the bench for 30 years and has seen it all," she said. Weisberg, formerly with the D.C. public defender's office, has been a judge since 1977.
When the trial begins, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Deborah Sines and Michelle Jackson are expected to call detectives, U.S. marshals, police officers, forensic experts and social workers to describe the discovery of the girls, the arrest and Jacks's life with the girls. Prosecutors plan to show that Jacks intentionally killed her daughters. She is charged with 12 counts, including premeditated first-degree murder and cruelty to children. Because of the ages of the victims, Jacks faces life in prison without parole.
Jacks's court-appointed attorneys encouraged her to pursue an insanity defense, but she refused. She was so adamant that she declined to meet with them for several months. Weisberg admonished her, saying she was only hurting her defense. She then agreed to the meetings.
"Not only are her attorneys fighting the prosecution, they're fighting with her. That makes her defense that much more difficult," said lawyer Brian McDaniel.
At her hearings, Jacks has appeared confident and strong-willed. She rolls her eyes and lets out dramatic sighs when prosecutors say things she disagrees with. At times, her lead attorney, Peter Krauthamer, has had to whisper in her ear to calm her.
Weisberg ordered several mental evaluations, but Jacks refused to comply. Weisberg then ordered her committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. When she also refused to cooperate with hospital staff, she was given two injections of the drug Haldol. After reviewing notes from staff during her stay, Weisberg ruled that she was competent to stand trial. She is being held in the D.C. jail.
Lawsuits against the city filed by the girls' grandmothers, Mamie Jacks and Jessie Fogle, and by Kevin J. Stoddard, Tatianna's father, are pending, said D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles. The family members said the city failed to remove the girls from their mother despite warnings from various city agencies.
Nickles said he plans to fight the lawsuits. "I need proof that they were there for these children when they were alive. They show me that, then we can talk," he said.