WASHINGTON – A judge found a District of Columbia woman guilty Wednesday of killing her four daughters and living with their mummified bodies for months in a case that brought scrutiny to the city's child welfare system.
Banita Jacks, 34, was convicted of four counts of felony murder, three counts of premeditated first-degree murder and four counts of first-degree child cruelty. She was acquitted of one count of premeditated first-degree murder in the death of her oldest daughter.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick H. Weisberg decided the case himself after Jacks waived her right to a jury trial. Bench trials are rare in murder cases, said Benjamin Friedman, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington.
Before reading the verdict, Weisberg said the case was one of his most challenging in three decades as a judge.
"It was a very lonely assignment," he said. At the end of the hearing, he buried his face in his hands.
Jacks faces life in prison when she is sentenced Oct. 16.
U.S. Marshal deputies discovered the girls' decomposing bodies in January 2008 while carrying out an eviction at their mother's southeast Washington row house. The girls are believed to have been ages 5 to 16.
Jacks, who walked into the courtroom with a cane, looked at Weisberg as he read the verdict and at times shook her head, but did not show any visible emotion.
In a lengthy interview with police, she said her daughters were possessed by demons and inexplicably died one by one in their sleep. She believed they would be resurrected.
Weisberg said the extreme decomposition of the bodies provided strong evidence of Jacks' guilt but also made it difficult for experts to determine how the girls died. Experts confirmed Brittany was stabbed, but there was not enough evidence to prove who did it and if that was what killed her. That's why Jacks was acquitted on one of the premeditated first-degree murder charges.
But Weisberg said it was clear she contributed to Brittany's death by mistreating her. That's why he kept the felony murder charge, which indicated that Jacks caused her daughter's death while committing a felony, in this case child cruelty.
"I can only imagine the torture and torment Ms. Jacks inflicted on her ... must have really done damage to her psyche," he said.
Weisberg said evidence showed the other three girls were strangled. He said Jacks also starved them and denied them basic necessities.
It was unclear why Jacks killed the girls, but evidence indicated she was extremely depressed. Nathaniel Fogle, her boyfriend and father of the two youngest girls, died from cancer in February 2007. Following his death, Weisberg said Jacks lost her last emotional and financial support and became frustrated with her daughters' behavior.
It appeared that taking care of them placed "a huge burden on an increasingly stressed-out mother," Weisberg said.
Prosecutors said they were pleased with the verdict but noted it would not bring back the girls.
"There's no joy coming out of this courthouse," prosecutor Deborah Sines told reporters.
Peter Krauthamer, one of three public defenders representing Jacks, said they will appeal.
"It's not where we wanted to be," Krauthamer said.
The case prompted the city to review hundreds of child welfare cases and make changes to the agency.
Six social workers were fired last year for not adequately responding to a report of abuse at the home months before the children were found.
A school social worker raised concerns about the family in early 2007 after she visited and thought Jacks was holding the girls hostage. But an investigation was closed because child welfare officials thought the family had moved to Maryland.
Earlier this month, city officials unveiled legislation named for the girls that aims to improve how health and human services agencies share information with one and coordinate services.