Brandon Jackson, a Shreveport man who has served 25 years in prison on a split-jury verdict for an armed robbery, will soon get a chance at freedom.
Jackson was found guilty in 1997 of participating in the robbery by a 10-2 vote. While in most of the country, such a vote would have led to a mistrial, Louisiana law at the time allowed 10-2 and 11-1 jury votes to stand. Though non-unanimous jury verdicts were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, Jackson’s split-jury conviction — along with hundreds more across the state — is still considered valid.
But his latest chance at freedom does not stem from his ongoing court challenges to the non-unanimous conviction. Rather, Jackson has been granted a new parole hearing, which is scheduled to take place on February 11 of next year.
Francis Abbott, the executive director of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on parole, said that the parole board decided to grant Jackson a new hearing last week.
This will be Jackson’s second parole hearing. In 2020, he was denied parole when one member of a three-member panel voted not to grant it. The two other members said they believed he should be released. But this time around Jackson will only need a majority of the three person panel to vote to grant his parole, according to Abbott, who cited “new rules concerning majority votes and the meeting of certain criteria for violent offenders” which went into effect August 20, 2021.
Jackson was convicted of robbing an Applebee’s restaurant at gunpoint in Bossier Parish in 1997. The state’s star witness, Joseph Young, was an employee of the restaurant, and said that he participated in the robbery by letting Jackson and another gunman in through the backdoor as he and a few other employees were finishing their shifts. The robbers then taped up the restaurant’s employees and stole over $6,000 in cash.
Police later found two guns that were allegedly used in the robbery at Young’s mother’s house, along with $1,000 that Young said Jackson had given him for his participation. Young was given leniency for his cooperation in the trial, ultimately serving just three months in jail plus probation.
Jackson said he had nothing to do with the robbery, and at trial, two of the twelve jurors voted not to convict. Both of those jurors were, like Jackson, Black. He was initially sentenced to life in prison after prosecutors utilized the habitual offender bill based on prior non-violent drug charges. His sentence was later reduced to 40 years.
Louisiana’s split-jury verdict law was taken off the books following a statewide vote in 2019. But the change in the law did not affect already-decided cases. Then last year, in the case Ramos v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that non-unanimous verdicts were unconstitutional, finding that the split-jury law was adopted, in the late 1800s, in an attempt to nullify the votes of Black jurors, who had only recently been granted the full rights of citizenship. The court’s ruling extended to some decided cases, but not those, like Jackson’s, where defendants had already exhausted the normal appeals process.
Still, the Ramos ruling provided a legal basis for challenges in state courts. And Jackson filed a petition for post-conviction relief arguing that he was entitled to a new trial based on his split-jury conviction. He was one of hundreds across the state to do so.
This year, in the case Edwards v. Vannoy, the Supreme Court declined to make the Ramos ruling fully retroactive. Instead, they left it up to individual states to determine how to handle old non-unanimous convictions. Cases across the state are winding through the court system, being handled in various ways. Recently, two state appellate courts ruled in opposite ways regarding whether or not people still in prison on split-jury verdicts are entitled to new trials. The divergent rulings are likely to prompt the Louisiana Supreme Court to make a ruling. In Jackson’s case, the judge has said he will wait until that happens before moving forward.
Jackson has largely maintained his innocence, but parole board asks for remorse, admission of guilt
Jackson has for the most part maintained his innocence. But at his previous parole hearing, which The Lens recently obtained audio of, he expressed remorse for the crime, which he said he committed.
“I would like to offer my sincerest apologies to everyone,” Jackson said, “I mean, everyone that was victimized by my crime, and my criminal behavior. It’s not that I’m a bad person. I just forgot who I was. I took my eyes off the Lord. I took my eyes off the upbringing. And I just went down the wrong road.”
“What do you think contributed to you decide on this particular day that you needed to rob?” a member of the board asked him.
“That particular day I was young,” Jackson said. “When I was arrested for this crime, that I committed, I was a much different person than I am today. And it was just being around the wrong people and making the wrong decisions.”
Jackson has admitted to dealing drugs around the time when he was arrested for the robbery. He turned himself in to police a week after the robbery when he heard he was a suspect, and told them he “was a drug dealer, not a robber,” according to a police report from the time.
Claude-Michael Comeau, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative who is representing Jackson, said that the admission was only a response to the “unfair rules” of parole hearings. Parole board members typically require prisoners to express remorse and acknowledge guilt to have a shot at being granted freedom.
“The Louisiana parole system assumes that all convictions are correct, and people are required to admit guilt if they want to be granted parole,” Comeau said. “This system does not account for innocent people, and certainly does not account for Louisiana’s use of non-unanimous jury convictions. Brandon had to work within the unfair rules of this system as best he could. He earnestly admitted to mistakes in his youth, and made these comments about the crime at issue as a man fighting to get home to his ailing mother.”
Jackson’s mother, Mollie People’s, is 74 years old.
The one board member who voted against Jackson’s release last year, Jim Wise, said that he was voting to deny parole due to “strong” law enforcement opposition and the fact that Jackson had a relatively recent disciplinary report.
“At this time, I think you’re on the right track. Just don’t have any more write ups and keep working hard,” Wise said.
The other two members, however, said they were impressed by Jackson’s accomplishments in prison and positive comments from the warden at David Wade Correctional, where Jackson is being held. One noted that Applebee’s was unopposed to his early release.
According to parole board policy, certain people in prison are able to be granted parole on a majority, rather than unanimous, vote of a three-person panel if they meet various conditions — such as having participated in certain educational programming, a low-risk assessment, and no serious disciplinary infractions in the previous twelve months.
This story has been updated with additional information about the upcoming hearing from Francis Abbott, executive director of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole.