Tuesday was the last day of Banita Jacks's murder trial. She is accused… (AP )
In the end, it wasn't forensics, witnesses or a weapon that convinced a D.C. Superior Court judge that Banita Jacks had killed her four daughters. It was the cumulative signs of a mother's despair that he said culminated in the girls' slayings.
After two days of reviewing the evidence, Judge Frederick H. Weisberg found Jacks guilty Wednesday of 11 of 12 counts of murder and child cruelty, because, combined with the other facts presented, she lived in her Southeast Washington rowhouse with her dying children for almost eight months but never called for help.
"Whether it was out of desperation or hopelessness, to take them out of their misery or some other reason known only to Banita Jacks, she intended to kill them," Weisberg said.
There were no eyewitnesses. There was no confirmed murder weapon. And medical examiners could not definitively rule on what caused the girls' deaths because their bodies were so severely decomposed.
There also was no jury, at Jacks's request. That meant that Weisberg, who has been on the bench 32 years, was the sole arbiter of her fate. He took notes during the trial, repeatedly viewed graphic crime scene photos and even interrupted attorneys during their closing arguments to ask questions.
Prosecutors spent much of the eight-day trial arguing that Jacks starved her children and isolated them for months from relatives, neighbors, friends and school officials.
"Her acts were intentional and reckless and caused each child grave injury and ultimate death," he said.
Yet major questions remain. Was Jacks insane, and did she mistakenly reject that defense when her attorneys advised her to plead not guilty by reason of insanity? Were there other explanations as to why she killed her daughters?
"I can't answer all the questions," Weisberg said.
Weisberg noted that Jacks's home life seemed to spiral downward after her live-in boyfriend of seven years, Nathaniel Fogle Jr., died of cancer in February 2007. His death, Weisberg said, caused Jacks to become "extremely depressed." By mid-2007, Weisberg said, "caring for the four girls was a huge burden on an increasingly stressed-out mother."
Weisberg mentioned the morning of Jacks's arrest, Jan. 9, 2008, when U.S. marshals arrived at her house in the 4200 block of Sixth Street SE to evict her. Marshals knocked several times before she answered the door, and when she finally answered, Weisberg said, she "stalled" by asking to see proof of the eviction and trying to block the officers from climbing the stairs to the second-floor bedrooms, where the girls' bodies were.
Weisberg said Jacks's words also influenced his verdict. During a videotaped eight-hour interrogation with detectives, Jacks said her three youngest girls died in their sleep. Although medical examiners could only speculate on exactly how they died, one thing was certain: The girls did not simply drift into death. Their bodies were positioned side by side according to age. Jacks told detectives that she did not call for help because she "didn't want to get into trouble."
Weisberg agreed with prosecutors that the three youngest girls -- Aja Fogle, 5, N'Kiah Fogle, 6, and Tatianna Jacks, 11 -- were strangled, although medical examiners could not definitively say strangulation was the cause of death because the bodies were so decomposed.
But he disagreed with prosecutors' argument that Jacks planned to kill her oldest daughter, Brittany Jacks, 16.
Medical examiners ruled that Brittany died first, about May or June 2007. Brittany's skeletonized body was found in a bedroom covered with a white T-shirt. Next to her body was a knife. Prosecutors, based on an autopsy, said Jacks fatally stabbed the teen.
But the autopsy did not definitively determine that Brittany died of the wounds, because the punctures in her abdomen were not near any vital organs. Also, there were no fingerprints or DNA traces on the knife. Prosecutors claimed that Jacks wiped the knife clean. But Weisberg agreed with Jacks's attorneys that it was not logical to think that she would wipe the knife but then place it next to the body, and he found her not guilty of premeditated murder in Brittany's death.
Still, Weisberg found Jacks guilty of a lesser murder charge in the death because Jacks did not seek medical attention for the teen. He added that Jacks's torment and torture of Brittany also led to her death.
As Weisberg spent almost an hour explaining his findings, Jacks sat largely motionless in the crowded courtroom next to her attorneys. At times, she shook her head during his remarks.
Jacks did not take the witness stand during the trial. But in her questioning by detectives, she called Brittany a Jezebel who was possessed by demons and was a bad influence on her sisters. Based on witnesses' testimony, Weisberg said he believed that Brittany might have been severely depressed or even suicidal because of her mother's treatment of her.