2019 Year in Review: Trials of Tim Jones Jr., Kierin Dennis and Jason Lee
(WIS) - Lexington County investigators and the 11th Circuit Solicitor’s Office were busy in 2019, leading the way through three high-profile murder trials over a span of eight months.
The work began long before that, however, especially as investigators and law enforcement prepared for the highly anticipated trial of Timothy Jones Jr. The Lexington County man was accused of killing his five children in 2014 at their Red Bank home, then driving around the southeast for nine days with their bodies in the back of his SUV. Eventually, he would lead investigators to where he dumped the children’s bodies -- off a logging road in rural Alabama.
“So many people at the beginning of this case said, ‘my gosh, someone to do this to their own kids must be insane or on drugs,’” 11th Circuit Solicitor Rick Hubbard said. “Well, there’s a third answer -- some people are evil.”
Jones was taken into custody after being stopped at a traffic safety checkpoint in Smith County, Miss. Officers testified Jones appeared high and found drug paraphernalia inside the SUV. They also noticed a strong odor coming from the car.
Jones was interviewed multiple times in the following days, eventually confessing to killing his five children.
He told investigators he strangled his youngest daughter, one-year-old Abigail, with a belt because his hands were “too big” to fit around her neck. He also admitted to strangling Merah, 8, Elias, 7 and Gabriel, 2. However, he said he did not kill his 6-year-old son Nahtahn. Instead, he told investigators he had put the child to bed after exercising him as a form of punishment, after he said the boy refused to tell him why an outlet at the family’s home was blown out in the living room.
Jones would later tell investigators he thought the children were trying to kill him.
Defense attorneys argued Jones was not guilty by reason of insanity. They also pointed to his repeated drug use of synthetic marijuana and its hallucinatory effects. They pointed to brain damage Jones suffered in a car accident as a teenager and told the jury his family has a history of schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.
But prosecutors did not agree.
“Deciding not to call 911 because he would get in trouble, running, trying to hide and lying,” Hubbard said. “The whole notion of hiding evidence, including his children, that all speaks of someone who knows they’ve done something wrong both morally and legally.”
Prosecutors told the jury Jones remained sober during his eight year marriage to the children’s mother, Amber Kyzer. It wasn’t until they separated he began regularly using drugs, they said.
Further, they pointed to Jones’ college education and good-paying job at Intel, all while raising five children.
The jury was shown a hand written list found in the front seat of Jones’ SUV when he was taken into custody in Mississippi.
“Chopping up bodies, grinding bones, different ways of disposing of the children,” Hubbard said. “Then, the most disturbing thing for me is there’s a smiley face. He admits that’s his handwriting.”
As the trial continued, a court-appointed psychiatrist told the jury it was his opinion Jones was not suffering from schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder.
Defense attorneys refuted that diagnosis by bringing several expert witnesses and doctors to the stand, each of which testified that based on their interactions with Jones, he was suffering from mental illness.
Some of the most powerful and emotional testimony came from character witnesses presented by prosecutors, including the children’s mother, former babysitters and teachers.
“I noticed the bruising on his neck,” Amy Shearer, one of Nahtahn’s former teachers, said. “So I asked him what happened and he said that his dad had grabbed him by his throat and slammed him against the wall because he broke Eli’s track.”
“I can’t be there anymore without seeing them walking the halls,” said another. “I need to move on with my life and this has really impacted it.”
After nearly two months of testimony, the jury arrived at a guilty verdict after about six hours. A day later, it took less than two hours to hand Jones a death sentence.
“We’ll never be able to give the kids their lives back, but we want to be able to say when they cried out in their house that night, nobody heard them,” Hubbard said. “But when we got this case we heard them and we picked up their cry and we couldn’t save them that night, but we could sure as heck hold that man accountable.”
Jones is currently sitting on death row at Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia. His case is under appeal.
In August, a Lexington County man was retried for the murder of a Dutch Fork High School student in 2014.
Prosecutors alleged Kierin Dennis fatally stabbed 17-year-old DaVon Capers during a fight near the Cook Out restaurant on Main Street in downtown Lexington.
Dennis was tried in 2016, but after 10 hours the jury came back deadlocked. His attorney, Todd Rutherford, told the jury the stabbing was in self-defense, after Dennis’ car was swarmed by angry students -- including Capers.
The case brought South Carolina’s Stand Your Ground law to the spotlight. However, a judge denied the motion for that defense in this case.
After a two-week trial and eight hours of deliberation, the jury found Dennis guilty of murder. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
“What Mr. Dennis did was cowardly, hateful, indecent and sinful,” Capers’ mother said. “DaVon was only 17 years old. He would have turned 18 on June 3rd, the same day he was graduating from high school.”
Dennis addressed the court after the verdict.
“I do deeply apologize to the Capers family,” Dennis said. “Parents, cousins, brother, sister, whoever was involved with DaVon. I really do apologize to them. It was a tragic thing and I wish it had never happened. I’ve said that every day since it’s been going on. Every day I wish it never happened.”
Rutherford said he plans to appeal the conviction, unhappy the judge decided not to include information about the Stand Your Ground law in his charging instructions.
“Jurors ought to be told what the law is in South Carolina and that you do not have to retreat from an occupied vehicle,” he said. “We believe jurors based their decision on the fact that they thought he could have found another way out -- but that’s simply not the law in South Carolina.”
In November, Jason Lee went to trial, accused of killing his estranged wife and Lexington County Sheriff’s Department employee, Lindsey Lee, in 2017.
She was found in her bathtub, showing signs of strangulation. Her throat had been cut. Grocery bags were strewn across the foyer floor after signs of a struggle, prosecutors said.
Lee also faced a first-degree burglary charge as was included in the indictment.
Prosecutors painted a picture of a man with hatred and anger in his heart, struggling financially and on the brink of divorce. Lindsey Lee, on the other hand, was happily dating, had lost more than 130 pounds and was ready to move on with her life, according to friends.
The case revolved around three small pieces of latex found on the floor of Lindsey Lee’s home. While much of the house lacked Jason Lee’s DNA, experts found traces of his DNA on the pieces of latex, which prosecutors speculated were from latex gloves used to carry out the killing.
Prosecutors said Jason Lee broke into his estranged wife’s house using his skills as a locksmith and waited for her to return home. When she did, they said, he attacked her.
Testimony from the medical examiner indicated Lindsey Lee was strangled, but she died from having her throat cut.
A friend and co-worker found her the next day after she didn’t show up for work. He testified to finding Lindsey Lee in the bathtub with water running over her and her clothes in the washing machine.
Jason Lee had an alibi and told investigators he was at home and asleep in his Simpsonville apartment the night of the murder. Surveillance video shown to the jury disputed that claim.
After the killing, prosecutors said Jason Lee returned to Simpsonville, where he drove his personal car to a Walmart parking lot. He is seen on surveillance video walking through several nearby businesses parking lots, presumably walking home to his apartment, assistant solicitor Shawn Graham said. He returned in his work van a short time later and parked right next to his personal car. After about four minutes, he drove his work van to the front entrance of the Walmart, went inside, made several purchases and left.
“He was moving something in between vehicles,” Graham said. “He was trying to distance himself from his car because it was the car he drove to Columbia to kill Lindsey in.”
Later, Jason Lee would tell SLED agents he woke up at his apartment complex that morning to find his car missing.
Additionally, data collected from Jason Lee’s Fitbit found no activity on the evening of Lindsey Lee’s murder to the early morning hours the next day. An expert who testified found that unusual, as that long of a gap was never previously recorded on his Fitbit.
Defense attorneys argued if Lee had planned the killing, he would not have left behind the small pieces of latex containing his DNA.
When Lee was initially questioned by SLED agents the day his ex-wife’s body was found, he had several scratches on his face. He told coworkers they were from his cat, while telling agents it was the result of dry shaving. Defense attorney Jim Snell argued none of the scratches resembled a full set of fingernails.
Jason Lee’s DNA was not found on the dials of the home’s washing machine, which Snell said is “as close to proving innocence as it gets.” Instead, an unidentified person’s DNA was found on the knobs.
Investigators found Lindsey Lee’s jacket still wet inside the washing machine when they responded to the crime scene. It would later be discovered it was the jacket she was last seen alive in.
Upon hearing the guilty verdicts, Sheriff Jay Koon and Lt. Olyn Sexton spoke on behalf of Lindsey Lee’s family members.
“All of us are having to go through our daily lives without an important person to us,” Sexton said. “She was something that was unstoppable and when she set her mind to something, it was going to get taken care of. Whether it be working on computers at the sheriff’s department, whether it be her fitness, whether it be her counting out 24 almonds because that’s what she was allowed to eat that day -- she was serious about those things and she always put her mind to it and took care of other people before she would take care of herself.”
Judge Thomas Cooper Jr. handed down life sentences on both convictions, but not before Jason Lee himself stood up to address the judge, surprising the courtroom.
“The only thing I have to say is I didn’t do it and I will be appealing this and I will be coming back on appeal,” he said. “I did not murder Lindsey Lee and I want that on the record. I am an innocent man, I did not murder her and I will prove my innocence and I don’t care if it takes 20 years -- I will prove my innocence.”
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