NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday sentenced a former Army major to probation and his wife to two years in prison for their convictions on multiple counts of abusing their three foster children.
The sentences amounted to a rebuke of the prosecution, which had sought 15½ to 19½ years for John and Carolyn Jackson.
In a lengthy discourse that wrapped up a marathon sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Katharine Hayden essentially negated the jury's guilty verdict on the top count in the indictment, that the couple had engaged in a conspiracy to abuse their children over a span of several years.
She also called out the U.S. attorney's office for what she characterized as overreaching in its sentencing recommendation.
"Fifteen-and-a-half years for this? Really? Nineteen-and-a-half years for this? Really?" she asked. "This is not a game. This is not the Giants versus Miami. This is not, 'How many touchdowns can you get.'"
The Jacksons were convicted in July on a total of 22 counts. Prosecutors presented evidence that the couple's three foster children, all toddlers, were left with broken bones and other health problems and were severely underweight when they were removed from the family home in 2010.
One of the children died, although the Jacksons weren't charged with his causing his death.
The couple's biological son told the judge at sentencing that his parents should get the maximum punishment for abusing his younger foster siblings. His parents deserved to "suffer just as much" as their children did, he told Hayden.
The teen testified during the trial that his siblings were made to eat red pepper flakes and drink hot sauce as punishment. On Tuesday, he described watching the toddlers suffer and said the effects of the abuse "will last the rest of our lives." It was his disclosure to a family friend that ultimately led to his parents' arrest.
The sentencing was complicated by the fact that there are no federal sentencing guidelines for child endangerment, which is a crime normally prosecuted at the state level. The Jacksons' case was brought in federal court because the family was living at Picatinny Arsenal in northwestern New Jersey when the abuse occurred.
Hayden rejected prosecutors' efforts to have the sentencing reflect federal assault statutes since some of the endangerment counts were based on alleged assaults. Defense attorneys accused them of trying to use a back door to get the assault counts in at sentencing when they weren't directly considered by the jury at trial.
In giving John Jackson probation, Hayden cited his military record and the fact that he didn't participate directly in the abuse. She agreed that Carolyn Jackson endangered the children's welfare, though she stopped short of endorsing the government's depiction of her as engaging in a systematic reign of terror against the children.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said he was disappointed in the sentences and would consider an appeal.
"The extreme harm that these defendants caused to these children justified, we believe, a substantial term of incarceration," he said. "The court didn't see it that way."
The Jacksons and their attorneys didn't comment after the sentencing. John Jackson was administratively separated from the Army in April and has lost his pension, his attorneys said.
Defense attorneys argued during the trial that the Jacksons' child-rearing methods might have been objectionable but they didn't constitute crimes, and that the foster children had pre-existing health problems.
The Jacksons' first trial in 2014 ended when Hayden declared a mistrial after a prosecutor, while questioning a witness, referred to the fact that one of the children had died.
The judge had previously ruled that the boy's death could not be introduced during the trial since the defendants were not charged in his death.