By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Banita Jacks had a secret in her upstairs bedrooms, a secret so terrible that she spent most of 2007 trying to convince the world that she had moved away from her Southeast Washington home, a federal prosecutor said yesterday. For months, the prosecutor told a judge, Jacks kept her blinds drawn, let mail pile up outside the house, stopped paying bills and left by the back door.
"Her secret was the rotting bodies of her daughters. And that secret unraveled when the marshals arrived on Jan. 9, 2008," Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Sines said in her opening statement at Jacks's murder trial in D.C. Superior Court.
When the federal marshals, who were there to serve an eviction notice, forced their way into the rented rowhouse, they found the bodies of Jacks's four daughters -- Brittany Jacks, 16, Tatianna Jacks, 11, N'Kiah Fogle, 6, and Aja Fogle, 5 -- in two upstairs bedrooms. Jacks said the girls had died in their sleep.
In the defense's 20-minute opening statement, one of her public defenders, Lloyd Nolan, said that although his client lived in the house, she was "completely innocent" of killing the girls. "This was a tragic event," Nolan said. "But Ms. Jacks was in no way responsible for the death of her children."
Nolan said the only evidence linking Jacks to the girls' deaths was that she was at home when the marshals arrived. Nolan said that no witness saw or overheard Jacks kill her children and that no scientific evidence linked her to their deaths.
Judge Frederick H. Weisberg will decide the case because Jacks has waived her right to a jury trial. She is charged with 12 counts, including premeditated first-degree murder and cruelty to children. Because of the ages of the victims, Jacks, who rejected an insanity defense, faces life in prison without parole.
The bodies were so badly decayed, Sines said, that prosecutors had to consult with four medical examiners, including one from the Department of Defense, FBI specialists and a forensic anthropologist to determine the causes of death. Eventually, authorities declared that Brittany had suffered puncture wounds to her abdomen, Aja had been strangled and beaten, and the two other girls had been strangled.
Nolan disputed the prosecution's assertions about the causes of death, saying the bodies were too badly decomposed to make a determination of cause or time.
During Sines's opening statement, Jacks, 35, dressed in a navy-blue prison jumpsuit, often shook her head and pursed her lips. But she kept her eyes forward, away from Sines. As was the case at earlier hearings, Jacks was an active participant in her defense. She wrote notes or used a yellow highlighter to communicate with her attorneys, who sometimes whispered to ask whether she had additional questions.
Sines spent most of her opening describing the girls' bodies and the home. All furniture, food and other household staples were gone, she said. In one bedroom, the bodies of the three youngest sisters, each dressed in a white T-shirt, were lined up in order of age. A "couple pairs of tiny flip-flops" were the only other things in the room, she said.
Sines said medical examiners determined that Brittany was killed first. Brittany's nude body was found in a pool of blood in another bedroom. A T-shirt had been placed over it. Sines said the decomposed body was "melting into the floor."
Sines said it appeared that Brittany had been held hostage in the room because the door was locked from outside with a key that Jacks kept on top of the door frame. A bedsheet covered a bedroom window that overlooked an alley. Feces and urine were found in the closet.
"She wouldn't even allow her own teenager out to use a bathroom," Sines said of Jacks.
The prosecutor said she plans to call as witnesses relatives, friends, the children's godparents, social workers and neighbors who will testify that Jacks verbally abused Brittany or that she withheld food from the children as punishment. Sines said one of Jacks's friends even drafted a custody agreement, hoping to take Brittany out of Jacks's home.
Authorities say they think Jacks began isolating her children from friends and family as early as April 2007, when she had Brittany's cellphone disconnected. "By April 3, no one talked to Brittany again," Sines said. Then, through the summer, neighbors saw three, then two, then one child outside with Jacks.
Before the trial began, Weisberg spent three days watching eight hours of videotape of Jacks being interrogated by D.C. detectives. During the interviews, Jacks spoke of her children as "having demons" and referred to herself as Mary Magdalene and to her dead boyfriend as Jesus Christ. Weisberg ruled that the videos could be used in the trial.
The first witness was Deputy U.S. Marshal Nicholas Garrett, who was assigned to carry out the Jan. 9 eviction. Garrett said Jacks answered the door wearing only a white T-shirt and a white head covering. She spat on the ground and wouldn't let him and the other marshals in, he said. After the marshals pushed the door open, Garrett said, he had to cover his face because of the stench.
"It smelled like rotting meat, like stink bait," he said. "I just thought it was rotten or spoiled food." After finding the bodies, the marshals ordered Jacks out of the house and handcuffed her.