Louisiana ‘Jim Crow jury’ prisoner Brandon Jackson granted parole

Jackson was convicted in a 10-2 vote in 1997. He is one of the hundreds of people who continued to live behind bars well after non-unanimous verdicts were ruled unconstitutional.

Brandon Jackson embraces his mother Mollie Peoples
Brandon Jackson reunites with his mother Mollie Peoples outside the David Wade Correctional Center after more than 25 years behind bars [Henrietta Wildsmith/Shreveport Times]

Brandon Jackson, a Louisiana man who was in prison for more than 25 years on a non-unanimous jury verdict, was released on parole on Friday.

Jackson was the subject of an investigation by The Lens and Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines into the legacy of Louisiana’s split jury law, under which people could be convicted of a crime and sentenced to life in prison with as many as two of 12 jurors voting for acquittal. The law was repealed following a 2018 statewide vote. In 2020, non-unanimous verdicts — which were also allowed in Oregon and Puerto Rico — were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

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But hundreds of Louisiana prisoners convicted by split juries remain behind bars today.

The state parole board announced its decision following a brief morning hearing. Jackson’s mother, Mollie Peoples, who attended the hearing via Zoom and spoke on her son’s behalf, threw up her arms in celebration at the news.

A photo of Brandon Jackson and his mother Miss Mollie
Brandon Jackson and his mother Mollie Peoples at Angola State Prison in 2002 [Courtesy of Mollie Peoples]

“I’m blessed,” she said in a phone call after the hearing. “I’m just so blessed. I don’t know how to act. I just want to run down the street and tell the world that my son is free.”

Jackson, who recently turned 50, was convicted in 1997 of robbing an Applebee’s restaurant at gunpoint in Bossier City and stealing more than $6,000. The jury vote was 10-2 to convict. In most states of the country, that would have resulted in a mistrial. In Louisiana, it was a valid conviction.

He was initially sentenced to life in prison due to previous non-violent drug convictions under the state’s habitual offender law, but that was later reduced to 40 years. He has for the most part maintained his innocence.

Non-unanimous verdicts were adopted in the Louisiana State Constitution in an 1898 constitutional convention — near the dawn of the Jim Crow era. The delegates to that convention met with an explicit goal, written in the official journal of the proceedings, to “establish the supremacy of the white race”. Legal scholars believe that the law was written with the intent of securing convictions for Black defendants by nullifying the votes of Black jurors, who made up a smaller portion of local jury pools than white jurors.

The law was in effect for more than a century, its legality affirmed in a 1972 US Supreme Court decision. But in 2018, The Advocate published an investigative series on non-unanimous verdicts, finding, among other things, that Black defendants were significantly more likely to be convicted by split jury votes. (Jackson is Black. And the investigation by The Lens and Al Jazeera found that both of the jurors who voted to acquit him were also Black.)

State legislators advanced a ballot initiative to repeal the law. And voters across the state overwhelmingly approved it.

But the change did not apply retroactively. Only defendants whose cases began on January 1, 2019, or later would be entitled to unanimous jury verdicts.

Then, in a 2020 decision in the case Ramos v Louisiana, the US Supreme Court found that split verdicts were unconstitutional. In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh called the law “one pillar of a comprehensive and brutal programme of racist Jim Crow measures against African Americans”.

That decision applied to some, but not all, previously decided cases. If a split-jury case had already made its way through the regular state appeals process, it would be allowed to stand.

In another Louisiana case decided in 2021, the justices declined to give Ramos full retroactivity, leaving prisoners like Jackson, whose case was by then more than 20 years old, with no hope for relief from the nation’s highest court.

The Supreme Court decision, however, did not prevent state courts from overturning those verdicts. Hundreds of prisoners, including Jackson, filed petitions for new trials citing the Ramos decision.

Copies of police files and court records
The prosecutor in Jackson’s case used the habitual offender law to give him a life sentence for an armed robbery in which nobody was hurt [Supplied]

According to a 2020 report by the nonprofit Promise of Justice Initiative, which represents and advocates for those who have been convicted by non-unanimous jury verdicts, including Jackson, about 1,500 people were still behind bars after being convicted by 10-2 or 11-1 jury votes. Eighty percent of them are Black, the group found.

Members of the parole board on Friday praised Jackson’s prison record. Since being imprisoned, he has gotten his high school diploma, a culinary arts degree, and worked in the prison hospital. He also, until recently, led a nightly prayer circle.

“I appreciate the hard work that you’ve put in,” said parole board member Sheryl Ranatza. “I appreciate the work that you do with hospice, and the prayer circle, helping your peers. I’m willing to give you a chance today.”

This was Jackson’s second parole hearing. In 2020, his parole was denied when a single member of the three-member panel voted against granting it. He only needed a majority this time — but the panel voted unanimously for his release.

‘He’s my beacon of hope’

At the hearing, which lasted about 30 minutes, Jackson told the panel that he looked forward to implementing some of the programmes he received in prison — such as anger management — to help people in the community when he gets out.

“These are some programmes that, I think, they need to be taught before instead of after,” Jackson said. “They teach you coping mechanisms, and the training that you need not to turn five minutes of anger into a 50-year sentence.”

While Jackson has maintained that he is innocent, he expressed remorse for the crime at Friday’s hearing and his previous parole hearing in 2020. His lawyer, Claude-Michael Comeau, attributed Jackson’s statements to the “unfair rules” of the parole board that “assumes all convictions are correct” and requires people to admit guilt if they want to be granted parole.

Jackson did not get into the details of the armed robbery he was convicted of on Friday, but said he apologised for “the irresponsible crime and my irresponsible criminal behaviour”.

The interior of the Bossier Parish Court House
The Bossier Parish Court House where Brandon Jackson was convicted by a non-unanimous jury in 1997 [File: Fault Lines/Al Jazeera]

“Today, like I said earlier, I’m a different man,” Jackson said. “I’m much older, much wiser. I’m grounded in my faith.”

Jackson received perhaps the highest praise from Jerry Goodwin, the warden of David Wade Correctional Center, where Jackson has been in custody since 2019. Goodwin all but said he felt Jackson should be granted parole.

“I believe that he’s really put forth the effort in these last three years to prepare himself to re-enter society, and I think he’s looking forward to that opportunity,” Goodwin said. “I think that he believes he will be successful because he’s got his mind set in the right direction and he’s got the skills and capabilities to be successful.”

He called Jackson a “model prisoner” and said he had not had “any problems whatsoever”.

In granting parole, the panel imposed several conditions on Jackson, such as a curfew, regular check-ins with his parole officer, and eight hours of community service a month.

Jackson said when he gets released, he will return to Shreveport to live with his mother, who is in her 70s and whose health has declined over the past several years.

“I plan on taking care of her, because she got up in age,” Jackson said. “When I got incarcerated, she was running track. Now she can barely walk.”

Jim Crow convictions
Brandon Jackson’s mother Mollie Peoples in front of the Bossier Parish Court on October 21, 2021 [Courtesy: Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens]

Peoples said even while imprisoned, Jackson has continued to provide support for her through regular phone calls.

“He’s still a smart, talented, dynamic force in my life,” Peoples said at the hearing. “He always cares for me. He’s loving and he’s passionate. And he’s my beacon of hope.”

Non-unanimous jury verdicts

Jackson remains a convicted felon, and his petition for a new trial based on his non-unanimous verdict is still pending in Bossier Parish district court.

Like many others in his position, a decision on Jackson’s case has been repeatedly delayed pending action from the Louisiana Supreme Court on whether people with finalised split-jury verdicts should be granted relief.

Advocacy groups were hopeful that recent state appeals court decisions — one finding that Ramos should apply to finalised verdicts and another finding that it should not — would prod the state Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter. So far, that has not happened.

It is not clear if Jackson will continue to pursue his claim now that he has been paroled. Comeau, his lawyer, said they will discuss it with him when he gets out.

For Jackson and Peoples, however, the days of nervous court hearings — seeing each other only on monitors and hoping for a hopeful signal from a judge — are over.

“It’s the greatest day in my life in the last 25-and-a-half years,” Peoples said following Friday’s hearing. “I’ve had so much loss, but this one day makes up all the gain.”

This story was produced in partnership with The Lens.

Source: Al Jazeera