STE. GENEVIEVE – The same jury that a day earlier found Christy Lynn Jaco guilty of first-degree child abuse was unable to agree Thursday on the punishment to be imposed on the 21-year-old Farmington woman.
After more than two hours of deliberation during the penalty phase of the trial, the jury announced it was “unable to decide or agree on the punishment” for the defendant. Under state law, Circuit Court Judge Kenneth W. Pratte will now decide the punishment.
The judge ordered a presentence investigation by the Division of Probation and Parole and scheduled formal sentencing to be conducted here Sept. 16. At that time he will also rule on the anticipated defense motion for a new trial.
Jaco could be sentenced to between 10 and 30 years in prison or given a life sentence for first-degree child abuse. She will not be eligible for parole until she has served at least 85 percent of whatever sentence is imposed by Judge Pratte. The range of punishment is the same as that for second-degree murder.
The charge against Jaco stems from the death of her 13-month-old son, Zachary Brooks, on Nov. 23, 2001, at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. Doctors testified earlier this week the baby died of brain injuries caused by violent shaking.
At the request of Prosecuting Attorney Wendy Wexler Horn of St. Francois County, Judge Pratte revoked the $1 million bond on which Jaco had been free for nearly 20 months. The prosecutor asked that the defendant, facing a possible life sentence, be held without bond until sentencing but in the alternative a much higher bond be set.
Terry Flanagan, Jaco’s attorney, argued that Jaco has made every court appearance required of her in the case that is nearly two years old. He said she is entitled to bond and would not object to a condition that she remain in the custody of her parents during the period until sentencing.
Judge Pratte responded that it is a common practice of his to increase the bond after a defendant has been convicted, particularly in a case where the crime is so serious and violent. The judge then set the new bond at $2 million.
Sheriff’s deputies then placed handcuffs on Jaco and led her into the jury room to wait until the courtroom could be cleared.
Horn told the jury in her closing argument, “Zachary Brooks will never have the opportunity to have the life he deserves. Now, it is your opportunity to give Christy Jaco the kind of life she deserves.”
There had been testimony earlier in the day about severe sexual and physical abuse the defendant suffered as a child. Horn said no child should suffer such abuse, but added, “All that she went through is not an excuse and it is not a cause.”
Horn said the baby “couldn’t help himself. He could not speak for himself. In November of 2001 there was no mercy for Zachary.”
John Peel, co-counsel for Jaco, pointed to the sexual abuse Jaco had suffered at the hands of her natural parents and the physical abuse administered by foster parents. “This case cries out for mercy.”
Peel told the jury, “Your job is not to bring back Zachary. You cannot do that.” He asked them to look at the life she has had and the good things she has done. He urged the jurors to look at the whole picture.
Both sides made impassioned appeals to the jury, Peel for mercy and a minimal sentence and Horn asking the jurors to consider a life sentence.
“This is not an isolated incident,” Horn said of the shaking that caused the baby’s death. Pointing to evidence of ongoing physical abuse for months, the prosecutor suggested “This was a battered child.”
Jaco’s trial, moved to Ste. Genevieve County on a change of venue, is the first to be conducted in the 24th Judicial Circuit since a new law was enacted in June requiring a penalty phase if a defendant is found guilty. Before the new law went into effect, only trials in which the death penalty was an option had a penalty phase.
What is called a bifurcated trial will now be conducted in all felony cases in which the defendant does not have a prior conviction. Previously, jurors were asked to recommend a sentence at the same time it rendered a guilty verdict without additional information.
In the penalty phase, attorneys for both sides may present additional evidence and testimony that is not allowed to be presented during the guilt phase of a trial. This includes so-called prior bad acts and issues of character that a jury has not normally heard in the past. It is the kind of information judges normally get prior to sentencing.