The prosecution rested its case Thursday morning in the Greene County Criminal Court trial of Erick Eugene Jones Jr.
Defense testimony began Thursday afternoon.
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.
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 has 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 statements to investigators in the days after the girls’ deaths, each conflicting with the previous version. 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.
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.
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. She 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 Kynsleigh and Trinity 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-relayed injuries, specifically the severing of the spinal cord from 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, testimony showed.
Dr. Remy Sagadraca, an emergency room doctor at Takoma Regional Hospital who was working the morning of Dec. 17, 2014, when Kynslegh Easterly and Trinity Tweed 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 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 of most people.
With the 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.
TESTIMONY AND STATEMENTS
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 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, Lott added.
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, shaking them until they were unresponsive.
Jones’ explanation for not calling for help for the girls was that he was “freaking out” because he was dealing crack cocaine and also had marijuana in the house. Jones also claimed to be so high on marijuana he didn’t comprehend what was happening, according to several statements.
Jones told investigators 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 on a person a combination of the street drugs known as “ecstasy” and “bath salts,” along with Clonazepam, might have.
Jones told investigators he was only high on marijuana.
Carlisle said a combination of the drugs could have a variety of effects.
Under cross-examination by defense lawyer J. Russell 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.