There’s no question how 19-month-old Jaden Jenkins died – brutally beaten over several months, succumbing to a final Sept. 12, 2009, attack so fierce it knocked out two of his teeth.
There also is no question who killed the toddler – his own father, James Lyons, who now is fighting for his own life in two different ways.
“We’re not denying that he killed the child,” said Dan Burke, Lyons’ attorney, adding his client gave police a lengthy confession.
Hamilton County prosecutors want the death penalty for Lyons, 28, of North Avondale, in an unusual capital murder trial that starts Monday. He is charged with aggravated murder, felonious assault and child endangering.
Lyons’ death-penalty case is the first of four expected to be tried in Hamilton County this year with child victims. He also is suffering from sickle-cell, a life-threatening disease that almost killed him last year.
“I will admit I have an affinity for cases where kids are victims. I do,” Prosecutor Joe Deters said. “It’s unimaginable the horror these babies go through at the hands of these (adults).”
Burke will consider his job successful if he spares Lyons from a date with death. “Our goal is to keep him off of death row, to try to save his life,” he said.
To do that, Burke made two strategic moves before the trial:
He and Lyons asked that judges – not a jury – preside over the case because of the child’s gruesome injuries.
“The skeletal injuries are just horrific,” Assistant Prosecutor Gus Leon said. “It’s the worst you can see.”
To try to take the emotion out of the trial, Burke and Lyons decided to have a three-judge panel to hear the case, the only other option to a jury in an Ohio capital case.
To prove the child was severely beaten often and over a long period of time, Leon will call several experts to testify.
One is a bone expert who, Leon said, will testify Jaden had a fractured skull – caused by at least seven head blows – and suffered at least 11 broken ribs during his life.
Another is a tool expert who will testify that the two teeth from the child’s mouth found at the death scene weren’t extracted by tools, Leon said. That will show, he added, that Lyons knocked them out with his fists.
DNA tests also were done on the teeth – in an abundance of caution, Leon said – to prove they belonged to Jaden.
Because the case originally was assigned to Common Pleas Court Judge Pat DeWine, he will preside over the panel with fellow Judges Melba Marsh and Jerome Metz.
Burke will call a series of witnesses – perhaps more than a dozen – who will testify about what a great guy Lyons is.
Burke said Lyons just snapped when he allegedly beat his son to death.
“He just lost it,” Burke said.
But prosecutors, especially with Deters as boss, won’t let that excuse deter them from seeking the death penalty in a case where a child was killed.
Deters successfully lobbied state lawmakers more than a decade ago to change Ohio law, making those who kill a child under age 13 eligible for the death penalty.
If there is proof and the facts fit a case where a child is killed, Deters tells his staff to seek the death penalty. “To be perfectly candid, we don’t always get the death penalty, but we still seek it,” he said.
“These are not like one-punch deals. We see multiple injuries, often over a long time.”
Of the five other pending Hamilton County capital cases, three involve allegations of beating, smothering or choking a child to death:
• Chris Dangerfield: Charged in the Dec. 28, 2010, beating death of 3-year-old son, Tyrese Short;
• Lionell Dangerfield: Accused of the May 29, 2010, beating death of his girlfriend’s 3-month-old, Zhi Merah Binford. Dangerfield is the son of Chris Dangerfield;
• Thomas Huge: Accused of the Sept. 7, 2010, smothering death of 15-month-old daughter, Kayli Bates.
Lyons almost made prosecutors’ execution request unnecessary.
He suffers from sickle-cell disease, a blood disorder where normal oval blood cells instead are C-shaped, like sickles. The sickle cells block blood flow and can cause organ failure and death.
That illness has hospitalized him several times over his life, including last summer when it almost killed him.
“He’s been in extreme pain all his life. Extreme pain,” Burke said of Lyons’ illness.
Prosecutors had to wait until Lyons was healthy enough before they could seek to have him executed.
“There sure is an irony there. No doubt about it,” Leon said.
In addition to the death penalty, other possible punishments for Lyons are life in prison without parole, 20 years to life in prison without parole, 25 years to life in prison without parole and 30 years to life without parole.
The case is expected to last much of the week.