NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Ordered to redo sentencing in a military child-abuse case that made headlines, a federal judge imposed only probation for former Army Maj. John Jackson late Thursday but slightly upped the prison term for Carloyn Jackson.
The Jacksons were convicted on multiple counts of child endangerment in 2015 based on evidence that they withheld sufficient water, medical care and food from three children they had fostered. One of the couple’s three biological children testified at trial that the Jacksons had forced his foster siblings to ingest hot sauce and red pepper flakes as punishment.
Prosecutors had sought terms of 19 years and 15 years behind bars for Carolyn and John Jackson, respectively, and the Third Circuit determined last year that the original sentences imposed by U.S. District Judge Katharine Hayden in December 2015 were “substantively unreasonable.”
Before imposing new terms late Thursday, Judge Hayden held a sentencing hearing in Newark that ran for two full days.
Carolyn Jackson’s new sentence of 40 months is just over a year longer than her original term, while John’s sentence remains unchanged.
U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito noted that prosecutors remain “disappointed” in the new sentences.
“This is a case where the victims were children, horribly abused by the foster parents to whom they were entrusted,” he said in a statement.
“A punishment that was severe, but fair, was warranted.”
When the Jacksons’ foster children were removed from their home in 2010, they were found to be severely underweight and suffering from broken bones. One of the foster children had died in 2008, but the Jacksons were not charged with causing his death.
Child-endangerment cases are normally tried in state court, but the Jacksons faced federal charges because they lived in an Army facility about 35 miles northwest of Newark.
Judge Hayden meanwhile explained Thursday that she did not credit much of the testimony by government experts, and that Jacksons did not fit the harsh descriptions alleged by prosecutors.
“There was no drugs, no sex, no satanic cult,” Hayden said. “There is no motivation that would suggest a crazy set of beliefs marked by symbols or strange outfits or nighttime covens.
“Here is a family of deeply held religious beliefs,” she continued. “There is a woman home-schooling her children, and there is a man in the military.”
One of the abused children, now 12, testified Wednesday that she remembered being “hit and punished constantly” by the Jacksons. The girl’s adoptive mother told the court meanwhile that the girl spends about seven hours a week in therapy and suffers from PTSD and anxiety.
In last year’s rare reversal, a divided three-judge panel of the Third Circuit criticized Hayden for minimizing the Jacksons’ abuses.
“Given the serious harm that the jury indicated defendants inflicted on Joshua, J, and C, this was not a simple case of bad or misguided parenting,” U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Cowen wrote for the majority.
The lengthy opinion went on to quoted a brief by the government:
“No reasonable sentencing court would have imposed such lenient sentences on parents who beat, starved, and neglected their young and defenseless adopted children over a five-year period,” prosecutors wrote.
On appeal the Jacksons had been represented by the Federal Public Defender’s Office and by the firm Javerbaum Wurgaft in Springfield, N.J.
The Jacksons’ defense attorneys emphasized in 2015 that the guidelines in the case specified light sentences, saying the Jacksons shouldn’t “be tried for one crime and sentenced for another.”
Prosecutors meanwhile urged Hayden not to focus on the Jacksons’ acquittal on assault charges, saying the nature of the child-endangerment convictions were “sufficiently analogous” to assault.
The Jacksons were convicted after their first trial had ended in a mistrial when prosecutors accidentally revealed the death of one of the foster children to the jury. A medical examiner determined that the death occurred from natural causes.
As a result of the trials John Jackson received an Other Than Honorable discharge from the U.S. Army and lost his pension.
The re-sentencing of the Jacksons, who are black, comes at a time when racial disparities in treatment of families accused of abusing their foster children are under scrutiny.
Last month in California, a white lesbian couple and their six foster children were all killed when the family SUV plunged off a California cliff. Police believe the crash may have been intentional; both of the parents in the case had previously been accused of abusing the children. Less than a decade ago one of the mothers, Sarah Hart, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault involving one of the children.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.