NEWARK, N.J. — An ex-military couple convicted of abusing their young foster children received additional punishment on Thursday during a resentencing prompted by an appeals court's ruling that their initial sentences were insufficient and didn't properly apply federal guidelines.
Still, the sentences fell far short of those sought by the government in a case that combined horrific allegations of abuse, heart-wrenching testimony during two trials and legal issues the sentencing judge conceded Thursday were "quirkier, odder and more difficult" than any she'd encountered.
U.S. District Judge Katharine Hayden sentenced Carolyn Jackson to 40 months in prison and her husband, ex-Army Maj. John Jackson, to three years' probation. Both were convicted on multiple counts of child endangerment in 2015.
At their initial sentencing that year, the judge disregarded the government's recommendation for sentences of 15 years for John Jackson and 19 years for Carolyn Jackson and sentenced him to probation and her to two years in prison. That was struck down by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year, prompting the resentencing, which took up all of Wednesday and Thursday. Prosecutors had sought similar sentences again.
The judge noted that her task of parsing which of the couple's actions contributed to which of the children's injuries was one that could have been handled by the jury in 2015, if prosecutors hadn't removed that requirement from the jury instructions.
In a lengthy and methodical hearing, the judge discounted much of the trial testimony by government experts and gave more weight to defense experts who had cast doubt on the connection between the beatings alleged by prosecutors and the children's injuries. She also portrayed the family far less harshly than did prosecutors.
"There was no drugs, no sex, no satanic cult. There is no motivation that would suggest a crazy set of beliefs marked by symbols or strange outfits or nighttime covens," she said. "Here is a family of deeply held religious beliefs. There is a woman home-schooling her children, and there is a man in the military."
Defense 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.
U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said he was disappointed by the sentences.
"This is a case where the victims were children, horribly abused by the foster parents to whom they were entrusted," he said. "A punishment that was severe, but fair, was warranted."
Both Jacksons will be credited for time served.
Prosecutors presented evidence at trial that the couple regularly beat the three toddlers and denied them food, water and medical care. Two of the children were forced to drink hot sauce and eat hot pepper flakes as punishment and were denied water afterward, prosecutors said.
The children suffered broken bones and were severely underweight and had other health problems when they were removed from the home in 2010. One of the children died, but the couple weren't charged with his death.
One of the couple's former foster daughters, now 12, said in court Wednesday that she remembered being "hit and punished constantly."
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.
Prosecutors argued the judge should sentence the Jacksons under federal assault guidelines for the child endangerment counts because the nature of the offenses made them "sufficiently analogous" to assault. Defense attorneys disagreed and argued the couple "can't be tried for one crime and sentenced for another."