Mistrial declared in child abuse case of Picatinny major and his wife
By Ted Sherman
The child abuse trial of an Army major and his wife came to an abrupt end this morning, a day after a prosecutor mistakenly disclosed to jurors that an adopted two-year-old son of the couple had died in their care.
U.S. District Judge Katharine S. Hayden, who had ordered that the child’s death be kept from the jury because it would be prejudicial, declared a mistrial in the high profile proceedings against Carolyn and John Jackson.
“I’m firmly convinced that the right to a fair trail has slipped away,” said Hayden.
She said while the mistake was not malicious or intentional, it was unfair to the defendants to proceed, with the jury now knowing that one of their children had died.
“It begs imagination and logic to believe the jurors will disregard what they know and what they learned,” she said—that their son died while in their custody.
The Jacksons, who had been stationed at Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County with their three biological children and three adopted children, are charged with child endangerment and assault. They have not been charged with the two-year-old’s death.
Prosecutors say the couple severely abused and neglected their adopted children through harsh discipline that included paddling, force-feeding them red hot pepper flakes, withholding water, and pouring hot sauce into their mouths.
According to prosecutors, 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 this 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.
A spokesman 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 spokeswoman Rebekah Carmichael.
Attorneys for the Jacksons both declined comment.
The government was four weeks into its case against the Jacksons, who were arrested in April 2013. Their parental rights to one of their three biological children and the remaining two adopted children—now ages 8 and 6—have been terminated.
No date has been set for a retrial.