D.C. woman who killed 4 daughters is given 120-year sentence

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009

Banita Jacks, convicted of murdering her four young daughters, was sentenced Friday to 120 years in prison by a judge who said evidence photos of the dead girls in Jacks's squalid Southeast Washington home, where she kept their decomposing bodies for months, "will probably haunt me for the rest of my life."

As Jacks, 34, listened impassively, D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick H. Weisberg rejected a defense request for a lesser punishment and imposed four 30-year prison terms, climaxing a case that horrified even longtime police officers and boldly underscored deficiencies in the District's child-welfare system.

"These children were incredibly vulnerable," prosecutor Deborah Sines told Weisberg. "These children were betrayed by the one person who's supposed to protect all of us: the mother."

Deputy U.S. marshals delivering eviction papers Jan. 9, 2008, found the remains of the girls, ages 5 to 16, in two bedrooms of a rowhouse in the Washington Highlands neighborhood. Jacks, who had been living as a recluse in the house with no electricity, told police that her daughters had died in their sleep, one by one, and that she believed that they were "possessed by demons."

Pathologists later concluded that the girls had been dead for at least seven months. The eldest appeared to have suffered stab wounds to her abdomen, and the other three had been beaten and strangled, autopsies found.

In asking for the maximum sentence possible -- life without parole -- Sines said the girls were kept so cloistered by Jacks that investigators were unable to learn much about them after their deaths, especially the two youngest, N'Kiah Fogel, 6, and Aja Fogel, 5. What little authorities did find out about the girls, Sines said, was gleaned by detectives who sifted through the filth of the house like archeologists, examining children's drawings on walls and scraps of paper.

Referring to Jacks's relatives in the courtroom Friday, the prosecutor said, "No family member submitted any victim-impact statements for these children," from which officials might have learned about their lives.

"All we can tell you is, they liked Dora the Explorer and, I think it was called, SpongeBob SquarePants," Sines told the judge, who convicted Jacks of murder and child-abuse charges after an eight-day non-jury trial in July. "That's all we could find," Sines said, "and it came from a funeral program."

Jacks, who did not testify at the trial, declined to make a statement in court Friday.

She sat at the defendant's table in shackles and a blue D.C. jail frock, occasionally frowning, shaking her head and whispering to one of her three attorneys as Sines spoke. Although her attorneys had repeatedly urged Jacks to allow them to pursue an insanity defense in her trial, she would not let them do so.

"Ms. Jacks has earned the maximum sentence," the prosecutor argued, objecting to a defense attorney's request for a sentence that might have allowed her to go free after 30 years.

"Each life was important; each girl could have fulfilled any dream," Sines said of the Fogel siblings and their dead half sisters, Brittany Jacks, 16, and Tatianna Jacks, 11. "She has earned life imprisonment."

One of Jacks's attorneys, David Norman, asked Weisberg to impose a 30-year term without parole for each murder and allow Jacks to serve the sentences concurrently. In three decades in prison, he said, his client could receive the psychiatric help she needs while the public would be protected, and it would give her a chance to be free someday.

"It's a difficult time for the family of Ms. Jacks," said Norman, gesturing to a dozen men and women with grim expressions seated in two rows of the courtroom gallery. "They do love their daughter, their sister, their aunt, their niece, in spite of the facts -- that is, the deaths of four girls. They still love the mother of those four children."

Weisberg said that as he thought about concurrent sentences -- essentially one prison term for four deaths -- he "could not conceive of any reason why" he should agree to the request. "Because each of these lives matters," he said. But he declined to impose life without parole, saying four consecutive 30-year terms without parole would have the same effect.

Even with mandatory time off for good behavior, the sentences would run for 102 years.

The gruesome discovery in Jacks's home in the 4200 block of Sixth Street sparked furious criticism of the city's long-troubled Child and Family Services Agency. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) fired six agency employees, saying they failed to respond properly to a school social worker's warnings about Jacks in 2007. An arbitrator later ordered the reinstatement of three of the employees.

From the bench Friday, Weisberg said the case had affected him like no other in his three decades as a jurist. He began presiding over the case in February 2008. What happened to the four girls, illustrated by the evidence photos, he said, "has intruded on my conscious life virtually every day in those two years."

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