Prosecutors vow a retrial after judge declares mistrial in child abuse case of Army major
By Ted Sherman
Federal prosecutors say they intend to retry an Army major and his wife charged with abusing their children, after a judge halted the proceedings yesterday over the inadvertent disclosure that the couple’s two-year-old son had died while in their care.
No timetable has been set yet for a new trial for Maj. John Jackson and his wife Carolyn, who are charged with endangerment and assault for abusing three of their six children, while stationed at Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County.
A conference on the matter is expected to be held after Thanksgiving.
A mistrial in the high-profile was declared yesterday morning by U.S. District Judge Katharine S. Hayden, a day after one of the prosecutors referred to the dead child, despite orders from the judge to keep the death from jurors because it would be prejudicial to the Jacksons.
The couple, who have been accused of hurting the child, have not been charged with his death, which was ruled by a medical examiner to be from “natural causes.”
Hayden said while the mistake was not malicious or intentional, it was unfair to the defendants to proceed, with the jury now knowing the boy had died.
“I’m firmly convinced that the right to a fair trail has slipped away,” said Hayden.
The couple sat silently in a Newark courtroom as the judge made her decision and then brought in and dismissed the jury
The government had been just four weeks into its case.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said they are committed to retrying the case. “We believe the defendants would have continued to receive a fair trial had we been allowed to proceed,” said Rebekah Carmichael.
Jackson is a military veteran who entered the Army in 1993 and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. With three children of their own, he and his wife took in and adopted another child, and three years later took in two more.
But last year, federal prosecutors announced a 17-count indictment accused the couple of beating their adopted and foster children, breaking bones, failing to get them medical help and training their biological kids to take part in mistreatment. The indictment also alleged the Jacksons force-fed children red pepper flakes, prevented a child from drinking water, and made an older biological child make sure the child did not drink out of sinks and toilet bowls.
According the authorities, the Jacksons, who now live in Mount Holly, told their biological children not to report the physical assaults to others, saying the punishments and disciplinary techniques were justified, as they were "training" the adopted children how to behave.
If convicted, both face a maximum of 10 years in prison on each count—which include endangering the welfare of a child and assault. The charges were filed in federal court because the abuse allegedly happened while the Jacksons lived at Picatinny, an Army research installation.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, the children were malnourished and severely dehydrated, with abnormally high levels of salt in their system, when doctors saw them in 2010.
The two-year-old, whose name is not being disclosed by NJ Advance Media because of his age, died in May 2008 from what a medical examiner has determined were natural causes. Before the start of the trial, defense attorneys successfully argued that any mention of the boy’s death could inflame the jury and would be unfair to the Jacksons.
In testimony earlier this week, the 16-year-old biological son of the couple told the jury his mother regularly used the paddle and ruler to discipline his younger, adopted brother when he was too slow to get into his car seat or to climb into his chair.
“He had to get into his car seat in a certain amount of time or he would get hit with a paddle,” the teenager told jurors.
The teenager, whose name is also being withheld because he is a minor, said his parents justified their harsh discipline by pointing to passages from the Book of Proverbs.
“Foolishness is bound up in the heart of the child,” he recalled his parents telling him. “The rod of correction will drive it out.”
But in continued questioning yesterday, assistant U.S. attorney Melissa Jampol incurred the ire of the defense when she asked the teenager whether he recalled an event that occurred when his adopted brother “was alive.”
Rubin Sinins, the attorney for Carolyn Jackson, immediately called for a mistrial, arguing that the prosecutor had violated the judge’s order that the boy’s death not be disclosed, and that no instruction telling jurors to ignore the comment would override the damage that was done.
“This is a tainted jury,” Sinins told Hayden.
In her ruling yesterday morning, the judge agreed that there was no choice but to declare a mistrial.
“It’s very, very hard to believe that the defendants are not prejudiced by this,” she said. “It begs imagination and logic to believe the jurors will disregard what they know and what they learned.”
Attorneys for the Jacksons both declined comment.