State v. Jones

Decision Date29 March 2023
Docket Number28145,Appellate Case 2019-001008
PartiesThe State, Respondent, v. Timothy Ray Jones Jr., Appellant.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of South Carolina

Heard November 9, 2021

Appeal from Lexington County Eugene C. Griffith Jr., Circuit Court Judge

Chief Appellate Defender Robert Michael Dudek, Appellate Defender Susan Barber Hackett, Appellate Defender David Alexander Appellate Defender Lara Mary Caudy, and Appellate Defender Taylor Davis Gilliam, all of Columbia, for Appellant.

Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Melody Jane Brown, and Assistant Attorney General Tommy Evans Jr., all of Columbia, and Solicitor Samuel R. Hubbard III, of Lexington, for Respondent.


Appellant Timothy Ray Jones Jr. admitted to killing his five young children and was indicted for five counts of murder. He was convicted by jury and sentenced to death. In this direct appeal, Jones raises eight issues centering on three points: juror qualification, requested voir dire and a related jury instruction, and evidentiary rulings made during the guilt and sentencing phases. We affirm the juror qualification voir dire, and jury instruction rulings. We hold the trial court erred in certain evidentiary rulings; however, we hold the errors were harmless and affirm Jones's conviction and death sentence.


This background summarizes the details surrounding the murders and Jones's actions in the succeeding days.

Jones and his wife were divorced and had five children. They had an informal joint custody agreement, with Jones being the children's primary caretaker. Throughout the day of August 28, 2014, Jones smoked spice-a form of synthetic marijuana-at work to cope with the stress of an impending project. Jones left work in the late afternoon and went to his home in Lexington County. He smoked more spice before leaving home to pick up his children. Abigail (age 1) and Gabriel (age 2) were staying at a neighbor's house, and Nahtahn (age 6), Elias (age 7), and Merah (age 8) were participating in an after-school program. Jones retrieved the children and purchased takeout from a local restaurant.

After Jones and the children returned home with their supper, Jones discovered an electrical outlet in the house was not working. He accused Nahtahn of tampering with the outlet because Nahtahn had an unusual interest in electricity. To get Nahtahn to admit he played with the outlet, Jones forced Nahtahn to do one hundred pushups, one hundred situps, and two hundred squats, all in sets of ten.

Nahtahn never admitted to playing with the outlet, but Jones later heard Nahtahn telling his mother over the phone, "It was an accident, Mommy." Enraged, Jones sent Nahtahn to bed. Later that night, Jones went to check on Nahtahn. He shook Nahtahn by the shoulders and again demanded to know what happened to the outlet. Nahtahn collapsed to the floor. Jones told Elias and Merah he thought Nahtahn was dead, and Merah confirmed Nahtahn was not breathing.

Jones then searched the internet for a violent male-on-male rape scene from the movie American History X and began to fear the things he would endure in prison as a "baby killer." At approximately 2:00 a.m., Jones took Merah with him to purchase ten packs of cigarettes at a nearby convenience store. Jones claimed that on the way home, he heard voices in his head telling him to kill his other four children because they would be better off in Heaven than without parents.

When Jones and Merah returned home, Merah went to bed. Jones smoked two bowls of spice and walked to the living room where Elias and Merah were sleeping. Jones wrapped his hands around Elias' neck and strangled him to death while Elias begged, "Dad, take me with you." Jones then turned toward Merah, who pleaded, "Daddy, I love you," and strangled her to death. Jones proceeded to strangle Abigail and Gabriel to death using a belt because his hands were too big to wrap around their tiny necks.

Jones next tried to kill himself by smoking seven or eight more bowls of spice. He woke up the following day and became paranoid. Thinking it was a matter of time before he was arrested, Jones decided he would go to Las Vegas. He wrapped each of the five bodies in bedsheets and stacked them in the back seat of his Cadillac Escalade. For the next eight days, Jones kept the bodies in his vehicle and drove back and forth through South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. At various points along the way, Jones purchased spice, trash bags, chemicals, goggles, a dust mask, and a jab saw.[1] During the trip, he searched online for applicable extradition laws and local dumpsites, landfills, and campgrounds.

On September 6-eight days after the murders-Jones placed his children's bodies in trash bags and dumped them in a rural area near Pine Apple, Alabama. Later that day, Jones was stopped at a safety checkpoint in Smith County, Mississippi. Officer Charles Johnson testified that as Jones approached the checkpoint, he smelled a strong odor of burnt marijuana and garbage coming from the vehicle. Officer Johnson noticed Jones's eyes were red and glassy and his speech was slurred. Officer Johnson asked Jones to pull to the side of the road. Jones consented to a search of his vehicle, which revealed bleach stains on the floorboard; synthetic marijuana; drug paraphernalia; bleach; muriatic acid; charcoal fluid; and a scribbled note reading in part, "Head to campground," "Melt bodies," "Sand to dust or small pieces," and "Day 1: Burn up bodies. Day 2: Sand down bones. Day 3: Mexican Border©, dissolve, and discard." Jones was arrested for driving under the influence, possession of a controlled substance, and possession of drug paraphernalia. A dispatcher advised the officers of a hit on Jones's vehicle for five missing children. Jones confessed to the murders soon after his arrest, and on September 9-eleven days after the murders-Jones led law enforcement to his children's bodies. The bodies were still in trash bags, and the children were unrecognizable due to severe decomposition and animal activity.

Jones was extradited from Mississippi to South Carolina, where he was indicted for five counts of murder. The State sought the death penalty, claiming the following aggravating circumstances applied: (1) the murder of two or more persons by one act or pursuant to one scheme or course of conduct and (2) the murder of a child eleven years of age or under. S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-20(C)(a)(9)-(10) (2015). Jones entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) pursuant to South Carolina Code subsection 17-24-10(A) (2014).[2] The jury rejected the insanity defense, returned five guilty verdicts, and recommended a death sentence. The trial court adopted the jury's recommendation and sentenced Jones to death. Jones raises the following issues in this direct appeal:

(1) Did the trial court err in qualifying Juror #156? (2) Did the trial court err in disqualifying Juror #338?
(3) Did the trial court err in denying Jones's request for voir dire and a jury instruction detailing the consequences of an NGRI verdict?
(4) Did the trial court err in denying Jones's motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the safety checkpoint?
(5) Did the trial court err in excluding Dr. Adriana Flores' expert testimony during the sentencing phase?
(6) Did the trial court err in limiting testimony pertaining to Jones's future dangerousness, remorse, and social history during the sentencing phase?
(7) Did the trial court err in excluding Cynthia Turner's pre-recorded testimony during the sentencing phase?
(8) Did the trial court err in admitting autopsy photographs of the child victims during the sentencing phase?

A. Guilt Phase 1. Qualification of Juror #156

The determination of whether a prospective juror is qualified to serve on a capital trial jury is "within the sole discretion of the trial judge and is not reversible on appeal unless wholly unsupported by the evidence." State v Evins, 373 S.C. 404, 418, 645 S.E.2d 904, 911 (2007). When reviewing an alleged error in the qualification of a juror, we conduct a three-step analysis, giving particular deference to the trial judge who sees and hears the juror. State v. Green, 301 S.C. 347, 352, 392 S.E.2d 157, 159-60 (1990); Evins, 373 S.C. at 418, 645 S.E.2d at 911. First, we must find the appellant exhausted all of his peremptory challenges. Second, we must determine the disputed juror was erroneously qualified. Third, we must conclude the erroneous qualification deprived the appellant of a fair trial.

We have repeatedly held that to determine whether a juror was erroneously qualified, the challenged juror's responses must be examined "in light of the entire voir dire." Evins, 373 S.C. at 418, 645 S.E.2d at 911; Green, 301 S.C. at 354, 392 S.E.2d at 161; State v. Woods, 382 S.C. 153, 159, 676 S.E.2d 128, 131 (2009). A juror is erroneously qualified when "his or her views on capital punishment would prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath." Woods, 382 S.C. at 159, 676 S.E.2d at 131; see Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412, 424 (1985); S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-20(E). "The ultimate consideration is that the juror be unbiased, impartial, and able to carry out the law as explained to him." State v. Sapp, 366 S.C. 283, 291, 621 S.E.2d 883, 887 (2005).

Jones exhausted all ten of his peremptory challenges before Juror #156 was seated, thus satisfying step one of our analysis. Step two-whether the trial court erroneously qualified Juror #156-is the crux of Jones's challenge. Jones argues Juror #156 was erroneously qualified because (1) he was...

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