NEWARK, N.J. — The allegations were shocking: an Army major and his wife accused of abusing their three young foster children through beatings, denial of food and water and forcing them to eat hot pepper flakes as punishment.
When John and Carolyn Jackson were convicted of child endangerment in 2015, prosecutors received another shock when the trial judge, casting aside their recommendation for prison terms of more than 15 years, sentenced Carolyn Jackson to two years and John Jackson to probation.
A divided 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that a U.S. district judge's sentencing was "substantively unreasonable" and that her rationale "defied common sense," and sent the case back for resentencing, scheduled for this week.
Judges often say that imposing sentence is the most difficult part of their job, and the Jackson case amplifies the balancing act necessary to weigh the seriousness of the crime with the requirements of the law.
"This case is full of emotion and horror, but there's a process and a way to get to a reasonable sentence," said Rebecca Monck Ricigliano, a former federal prosecutor currently in private practice with Crowell and Moring in New York. "There is a method here, and I think that's where the circuit court found fault."
The Jacksons' first trial in 2014 ended when a prosecutor inadvertently referred to a fourth foster child who had died. The Jacksons weren't charged in his death, and Hayden declared a mistrial.
At the retrial, prosecutors presented evidence the children suffered broken bones and other serious health problems from the abuse, and were severely underweight and developmentally delayed when they were removed from the family home in 2010.
The couple's attorneys argued the Jacksons' child-rearing methods might have been unconventional but weren't criminal. They also said the foster children had serious health problems before they joined the family.
Since the Jacksons lived at the Army's Picatinny Arsenal facility in New Jersey, they were tried in federal court. Because child endangerment isn't a federal crime, state endangerment charges were merged into the federal indictment to go along with a conspiracy count and two assault counts.
When the Jacksons were convicted of child endangerment but acquitted of the assault counts, prosecutors argued Hayden should sentence them under federal guidelines because the nature of the endangerment counts made them "sufficiently analogous" to assault.
Defense attorneys disagreed and argued the couple "can't be tried for one crime and sentenced for another."
During a lengthy sentencing hearing, Hayden rejected the prosecution's argument, saying that applying federal assault guidelines was the equivalent of "fitting a square peg into a round hole." She also accused prosecutors of being overzealous.
"This is not a game," she said. "This is not the Giants versus Miami. This is not, how many touchdowns do we win by?"
The appeals court called that comment "inappropriate" and faulted Hayden for not considering aggravating factors such as the extent of the children's injuries.
"Characterizing Defendants' conduct as misguided corporal punishment and mistaken or bad parenting, the District Court refused to hold Defendants' responsible for the children's various injuries and medical conditions," the majority wrote.
Highlighting the case's complexities, 3rd Circuit Judge Theodore McKee wrote in a dissent that he agreed with Hayden's reasoning even though "it is impossible for anyone with an ounce of compassion to read through this transcript without becoming extraordinarily moved by allegations about what these children had to endure."
The U.S. attorney's office and an attorney representing Carolyn Jackson declined to comment on Wednesday's resentencing. John Jackson is represented by the federal public defender's office, which doesn't comment on cases.
The case is an example of the judicial system working as it should, said Michael Weinstein, a former government prosecutor now in private practice with New York-based Cole Schotz.
"It's a great check and balance," he said. "Yes, judges have tremendous discretion and authority, but there is someone looking over their shoulder evaluating what they do and making it conform in general, broad strokes with what the circuit sees as the law at the time."