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D.C. Judge Convicts Jacks of Murder in Deaths of Four Daughters

Banita Jacks's attorney Peter Krauthamer addresses the media outside D.C. Superior Court after the guilty verdict was read on Wednesday.
Banita Jacks's attorney Peter Krauthamer addresses the media outside D.C. Superior Court after the guilty verdict was read on Wednesday. (Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)

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By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009

In the end, it wasn't forensics, witnesses or a weapon that convinced a D.C. Superior Court judge that Banita Jacks had killed her four daughters. It was the cumulative signs of a mother's despair that he said culminated in the girls' slayings.

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After two days of reviewing the evidence, Judge Frederick H. Weisberg found Jacks guilty Wednesday of 11 of 12 counts of murder and child cruelty, because, combined with the other facts presented, she lived in her Southeast Washington rowhouse with her dying children for almost eight months but never called for help.

"Whether it was out of desperation or hopelessness, to take them out of their misery or some other reason known only to Banita Jacks, she intended to kill them," Weisberg said.

There were no eyewitnesses. There was no confirmed murder weapon. And medical examiners could not definitively rule on what caused the girls' deaths because their bodies were so severely decomposed.

There also was no jury, at Jacks's request. That meant that Weisberg, who has been on the bench 32 years, was the sole arbiter of her fate. He took notes during the trial, repeatedly viewed graphic crime scene photos and even interrupted attorneys during their closing arguments to ask questions.

Prosecutors spent much of the eight-day trial arguing that Jacks starved her children and isolated them for months from relatives, neighbors, friends and school officials.

"Her acts were intentional and reckless and caused each child grave injury and ultimate death," he said.

Yet major questions remain. Was Jacks insane, and did she mistakenly reject that defense when her attorneys advised her to plead not guilty by reason of insanity? Were there other explanations as to why she killed her daughters?

"I can't answer all the questions," Weisberg said.

Weisberg noted that Jacks's home life seemed to spiral downward after her live-in boyfriend of seven years, Nathaniel Fogle Jr., died of cancer in February 2007. His death, Weisberg said, caused Jacks to become "extremely depressed." By mid-2007, Weisberg said, "caring for the four girls was a huge burden on an increasingly stressed-out mother."

Weisberg mentioned the morning of Jacks's arrest, Jan. 9, 2008, when U.S. marshals arrived at her house in the 4200 block of Sixth Street SE to evict her. Marshals knocked several times before she answered the door, and when she finally answered, Weisberg said, she "stalled" by asking to see proof of the eviction and trying to block the officers from climbing the stairs to the second-floor bedrooms, where the girls' bodies were.

Weisberg said Jacks's words also influenced his verdict. During a videotaped eight-hour interrogation with detectives, Jacks said her three youngest girls died in their sleep. Although medical examiners could only speculate on exactly how they died, one thing was certain: The girls did not simply drift into death. Their bodies were positioned side by side according to age. Jacks told detectives that she did not call for help because she "didn't want to get into trouble."

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