A jury hearing evidence in an aggravated child neglect case since last week had three hours of deliberation Wednesday before a judge sent them home for the night.
Robert Simons III, 55, and Mary Ella Tittle, 39, of Jonesborough, are charged with eight counts of aggravated child neglect, five that involve a child age 8 or younger and three involving a child under 18 years old.
They’re accused of neglecting their five children by not sending them to school, neglect prosecutors say was cruel because it substantially delayed the children’s ability to learn.
Prosecutors also said the couple neglected their daughter’s serious medical condition — a kidney disease — to the point it became life threatening by the time the parents were arrested in April 2010 and the kids — ages 7 to 13 at the time — put into state’s custody.
The children had never attended school, according to evidence presented during the trial.
The girl has since had a kidney transplant and is doing well, according to doctors and her foster parents. The children now live in Hamblen County with Junior and Brenda Jordan. The Jordans testified there were many life skills — brushing their teeth, taking baths and using utensils to eat — they had to teach the children.
Attorneys presented closing arguments Wednesday morning, and the jury began their deliberations around 3:30 p.m.
Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle opened the closing arguments with reminders to the jury of some of the evidence the panel heard.
She said Simons fully intended to leave Washington County with his family the day DCS and a county investigator showed up. They were delayed because Tittle was recovering from a recent surgery. DCS was investigating allegations about children not attending school when they went to the family’s property on Miller Drive.
McArdle said Simons and Tittle were able to elude authorities for many years.
“At same time they told DCS in Tennessee they were home-schooling in Pennsylvania, they were telling doctors in Pennsylvania they home-schooled in Tennessee,” she said. “We as a society cannot tolerate the way these defendants treated their children.”
Defense attorney Matt Bolton, who represents Simons, told the jury his client and Tittle had genuine concern for their children and made efforts to get treatment for their daughter.
“Don’t you think a wickedly evil person would not have sought the care that they did?” Bolton asked the panel. He and Tittle’s attorney, Jim Lonon, argued the state’s attempt to prove the neglect was “cruel, heinous or atrocious” fell short.
Bolton said prosecutors’ evidence about a rat bite Simons’ daughter got was an attempt to “blow that out of proportion,” because it was a pet rat, not one crawling out of the walls.
“The kids are going to be OK,” Bolton said. They are “intellectually disabled,” but progressing in their education, he added.
Blogs Tittle posted on her MySpace account showed “genuine concern,” he said.
That Internet account was one piece of evidence prosecutors say showed Tittle was intelligent enough to manage, so she should have had the knowledge her children were supposed to be in school.
Lonon reminded the jury of something he said in his opening statements.
“I told you you would see children in tragic circumstances and that’s what you’ve seen,” he said, calling the situation a “human tragedy.”
Lonon also told the panel there’s a reason the children are intellectually disabled — “it’s genetics.”
That brought an objection from Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks because there was no evidence presented to show Simons and Tittle were intellectually disabled.
Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp instructed the jury to disregard Lonon’s statement.
Brooks asked the jury to think about all the things Simons and Tittle could have done for their children without spending any money.
“Does it take money to teach them how to clean behind their ears, teach them their last name?” he asked. “They didn’t even bother to give their children the skills that they knew,” he said.
The children didn’t know their last name, their ages or birthdays. Brooks said the children may never go to college, but they are learning.
In regard to the daughter’s medical needs, Brooks reminded the jury that when a Pennsylvania doctor who had been treating the girl told Simons he might lose custody if he couldn’t provide a stable living environment, the girl never went back for a check of her condition.
As Brooks wrapped up his closing arguments, he showed a recent video of the girl saying her ABC’s. She finished with a big grin.
“Due to the neglect of these defendants that smile would have been wiped from the face of this earth,” he said with emotion in his voice.
“If this isn’t the picture of aggravated child neglect, please tell us what it is,” he said. “It’s been my honor to tell you about these five precious children who deserve more. Today they deserve justice. It’s up to you.”