Defense testimony began Thursday afternoon in the Greene County Criminal Court trial of Erick Eugene Jones Jr.
The prosecution rested its case Thursday morning.
Testimony about the likely time frame two little girls died, given by a forensic pathologist who testified for the prosecution, was strongly refuted by the first defense witness. Both doctors happen to be co-workers.
The defense rested its case Friday morning, and closing arguments were expected to begin Friday afternoon.
CHARGES IN CASE
Jones, 25, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder, along with two counts each of aggravated child abuse and aggravated child neglect in connection with the deaths Dec. 17, 2014, of 13-month-old Kysleigh Easterly and 2-month-old Trinity Brooke Tweed. The state seeks the death penalty should Jones be convicted of the murder counts. The murder counts reflect different theories of the crime.
Mother Kendra Tweed, Jones, the little girls and their 3-year-old sister lived in a house at 304 N. Hardin St. in Greeneville.
The bodies of the girls were found inside the house by first responders after a call was made at 7:48 a.m. that morning to Greene County 911 Dispatch by a frantic Tweed.
The prosecution put more than 20 witnesses on the stand since the case began Monday. The jury, which was drawn from Hamblen County because of pre-trial publicity about the case, must decide if there is sufficient evidence to convict Jones of the capital murder charge and abuse counts.
Jones gave at least five interviews to investigators that offered conflicting versions of how the girls died, alternately suggesting that Kynsleigh’s father and Kendra Tweed may be responsible for the crimes. He has been in custody since Dec. 19, 2014, and the state later indicated it would seek the death penalty for the crimes. Jones maintains his innocence.
Tweed, 25, was charged in November 2015 with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of aggravated child endangerment and two counts of aggravated child neglect. Tweed is charged with the offenses in connection with a statute known as “Haley’s Law,” named after a Campbell County child who suffered serious injuries after enduring severe abuse. The law makes it a Class A felony to abuse a child under the age of 9 in a way that leads to bodily injury.
Tweed’s case is separate from Jones and is currently pending. She has not been offered any plea agreements, according to 3rd Judicial District Attorney General Dan E. Armstrong, lead prosecutor in the Jones case. Tweed was not called as a prosecution witness at Jones’ trial.
TIME OF DEATH ESTIMATE
The prosecution’s first witness Thursday was a forensic pathologist who worked out a methodology to estimate when the toddler and infant died.
Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan, chief medical examiner for Knox County and associate professor of pathology at the University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine, testified that the time the children likely died was between 3 and 4 a.m. on Dec. 17, 2017. She also offered a possible expanded window of between 2 and 5 a.m.
Earlier at trial, the doctor who performed the autopsies testified that Kynsleigh and Trinity died of violent trauma-related injuries, specifically the severing of the spinal cord from the base of their brains. Their bodies also had bruises and abrasions and were cold to the touch by the time first responders arrived shortly before 8 a.m. on Dec. 17, trial testimony showed.
Dr. Remy Sagadraca, an emergency room doctor at Takoma Regional Hospital who was working the morning of Dec. 17, 2014, when Kynslegh and Trinity were brought there by a Greene County-Greeneville EMS crew, testified at trial the girls were pronounced dead after various resuscitation methods were attempted.
Sagadraca testified the body temperatures of the girls were recorded. Kynsleigh’s was 90.5 degrees, while Trinity’s temperature was 90.6 degrees, well below the normal 98.6 normal range for most people.
With knowledge that the body temperature of a person who died generally goes down about 2 degrees per hour under normal conditions, along with other factors, Mileusnic-Polchan arrived at the estimated time of death estimate as part of a report prepared for the district attorney general’s office.
Mileusnic-Polchan testified that in arriving at the estimate, she also reviewed the girls’ muscle rigidity, settling of blood in their bodies, medical records and statements from first responders and doctors who worked on them.
The temperature in the North Hardin Street house was about 70 degrees. The girls were not outside before their deaths, trial testimony showed.
“When they were injured, they were dead,” the doctor testified, drawing on information from Dr. Eugene H. Scheuerman, the forensic pathologist who did the autopsies on the girls and testified at trial.
Jones said in several of his statements he left the house to sell crack cocaine and returned to find Kynsleigh not breathing, about 3 a.m. on Dec. 17, 2014. Her father, known by the street name “Hustle,” was present in the house while Jones was gone, Jones told investigators.
WITNESS REFUTES REPORT
Dr. William Oliver is medical examiner for Knox County. He was previously a professor of pathology and director of Autopsy and Forensic Services at East Carolina University.
As the first defense witness, Oliver took strong exception to the validity of the report prepared by Mileusnic-Polchan.
He termed the methodology used by his colleague “useless” in determining a time of death of the girls.
“If you say four hours it doesn’t mean four hours. It means a window centered on four-and-one-half hours either way. That means a window of nine hours,” Oliver told defense lawyer J. Russell Pryor.
Taking all the factors studied by Mileusnic-Polchan into account, “That’s the variability of the study,” Oliver testified.
Oliver said he was not overly familiar with the criminal aspect of the case.
“I am interested in the scientific validity of these studies as they are presented in court,” Oliver said. “There is (body temperature) variability even in one person.”
Factors like a child having a cold could come into play, in addition to body type, the indoor or outdoor temperature, or if a person had been resting or doing labor, he told Pryor.
“You can play with these numbers all you want, but you still have a large window around it,” he said. There’s a large number of things that affect the cooling of the body.”
Oliver said as a rule, he does not take a rectal body temperature when conducting an autopsy.
“The methodology of using body temperature is not reliable,” he said. “(A) child is much smaller and more reactive to the environment.”
Oliver added it is “virtually impossible to to focus on the time of death of a child because they are usually found dead.”
Oliver told Armstrong on cross-examination that he did not focus on Mileusnic-Polchan’s report other than the recorded body temperature of the girls taken at Takoma Regional Hospital.
“It’s a random event. It’s not something that you can control and that’s what this study does. The randomness runs approximately 4.5 hours,” he said.
The study is only useful “if you accept the variability,” Oliver said.
“So you’re saying the rectal temperature of the child is of no value?” Armstrong asked.
“It would if the timeframe was less than 10 hours,” he said. “Otherwise, this is useless.”
After Oliver’s testimony, Judge John F. Dugger Jr. released the sequestered jury for the day to discuss motions and evidentiary questions in the case with defense lawyers and prosecution.
EARLIER TRIAL TESTIMONY
Tweed worked overnight as a home health care aide with a woman who lived on McCormick Circle, near Fairgrounds Drive. Jones was caring for the children. A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation expert on forensic examination of cellphones showed Wednesday that all cellphone transmissions from Tweed before she came home after 5 a.m. Dec. 17 came from a tower near the client’s home.
There was no activity on her cellphone between 12:10 and 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 17, TBI Special Agent Mike Frizzell’s testimony showed. Frizzell said all activity on Tweed’s cellphone was coming from the Fairground Road tower near where she was working between about 4 p.m. Dec. 16 until 5:52 a.m. on Dec. 17.
All cellphone activity on Jones’ phone between 2 p.m. Dec. 16 and 8 a.m. Dec. 17 came from the tower near North Hardin Street, Frizzell testified.
A text from Tweed was found on Jones’ phone made at 12:09 a.m. on Dec. 17. There was no further cellphone activity for 4-1/2 hours, trial testimony showed.
The last signal came from the tower near McCormick Circle, testimony showed.
Jones claimed in statements given to investigators on Dec. 20, 2014, that Tweed came home from her job about 11 p.m. on Dec. 16 and picked up Kynsleigh and then Trinity, and shook them hard until they were unresponsive.
Jones’ explanation for not calling for help for the girls was that he was “freaking out” because he possessed crack cocaine and marijuana. Jones also claimed to be so high on marijuana he didn’t comprehend what was happening, according to several statements.
Jones told investigators in several statements that after Tweed handled her daughters, she went back to work about 1 a.m. Jones estimated in a Dec. 20 statement to investigators that Kynsleigh died about midnight.
Also testifying Thursday was TBI special Agent Melanie Carlisle, a forensic scientist. Assistant District Attorney Cecil Mills Jr. asked Carlisle about effects of taking a combination of the street drugs known as “ecstasy” and “bath salts,” along with the anti-anxiety medication Clonazepam.
Jones told investigators he was only high on marijuana. Other testimony suggested he may have taken the other drugs on the night of Dec. 16.
Carlisle said a combination of the drugs could have a variety of effects.
Under cross-examination by Pryor, Carlisle agreed that it was possible that someone coming off a combination of those drugs could react “in a way they maybe wouldn’t normally react,” including showing a lack of emotion in normally emotional situations.
Pryor asked if a combination of the drugs could cause “a mental disturbance as well as an emotional disturbance.”
“Yes,” Carlisle replied.
Defense testimony continues Friday.