A Louisiana prisoner, convicted by 10-2 jury vote decades ago, may finally have a chance at freedom this week, more than three years after voters outlawed split jury verdicts in the state and nearly two years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional.
Brandon Jackson, who was convicted by a non-unanimous jury of armed-robbery, has spent the better part of the past two years fighting for a new trial, arguing that the 2020 Supreme Court decision in Ramos v. Louisiana should nullify his 1996 verdict. That effort has stalled. But on Friday, he is scheduled for a hearing before the state parole board.
It will be Jackson’s second parole hearing. At his first, in 2020, he was denied when one member of a three-member panel voted against granting it.
Jackson has, for the most part, maintained that he is innocent of holding up an Applebee’s restaurant in Bossier Parish, Louisiana, at gunpoint and taking over $6,000 dollars.
At trial, the prosecution’s key witness, Joseph Young, was an alleged co-conspirator in the robbery who was working at the Applebee’s at the time. Young said that he let Jackson and another man, both wearing masks, in the backdoor of the restaurant, where they tied up several other employees and made off with the cash, along with several thousand dollars worth of gift cards. Police also found the guns that were allegedly used in the robbery, along with over $500 dollars that Young said he got from Jackson, at Young’s mothers house.
Young changed his story several times — including in a video recorded prior to the trial, obtained by The Lens and Al-Jazeera, in which he said that neither he nor Jackson were involved in the robbery. That video was never shown to jurors, and Jackson was convicted. Initially, Jackson was sentenced to life in prison due to prior drug convictions, under the state’s habitual offender law. But that sentence was later reduced to 40 years, of which Jackson has now served 25.
In exchange for his testimony against Jackson at trial, Young was given leniency in his own case, and only served three months in jail, plus probation.
At the trial, ten jurors voted to convict Jackson, two voted to acquit. In almost every other state in the country, that would have meant a mistrial. But in Louisiana at the time, it was a valid conviction under state law. Both jurors who voted to acquit were Black, like Jackson. A 2018 investigation into non-unanimous juries by The Advocate reported that Black defendants are more likely to be convicted by split-jury verdicts than white defendants.
Jackson is now one of hundreds of prisoners in Louisiana challenging their non-unanimous convictions based on the Ramos ruling.
‘The heart can only take so much’
Until recently, Louisiana was one of two states, along with Oregon, to allow for split-jury verdicts. In Louisiana the law was enshrined in the state constitution during a 1898 convention that was intended to “establish the supremacy of the white race.” Advocates and legal scholars have argued that the law was intended to more easily convict Black defendants by nullifying the votes of Black jurors, who were newly able to serve on juries and who typically made up a minority of jury pools.
But after a public campaign and a Pulitzer-prize winning series by the Advocate showing the racially disparate impacts of split-jury verdicts on Black defendants and Black jurors, Louisiana voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution that repealed the split-jury law. The new law, however, only applied in cases that were initiated on or after Jan. 1, 2019.
Then, in 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Ramos.That ruling applied to cases that were still on direct appeal in state courts — meaning that they would be entitled to a new trial.
But people like Jackson, who had their convictions upheld through the appeals process prior to the end of split-jury verdicts in the state, were not given any relief. In another U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2021, called Edwards v. Louisiana, said that the Court would not mandate new trials for people who were still in prison on split-jury verdicts who had exhausted their appeals, but would allow individual states to make a determination on how to handle them.
A non-profit group, Promise of Justice Initiative, estimates that there were around 1,500 people in prison on non-unanimous jury verdicts that did not get immediate relief from the U.S. Supreme Court rulings. 80 percent of them are Black.
In recent months, Louisiana appellate courts have issued contradictory rulings on whether or not people like Jackson should get a new trial. In November 2021, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal in New Orleans ruled that split-jury verdicts violated “fundamental fairness.” But on the very same day, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles reversed a district court decision that had previously granted Ramos retroactivity to a defendant.
Advocates are hopefully that the divergent opinions — known as a “circuit split” — will prompt the Louisiana Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue. But so far, it has declined to do so. The Louisiana State Legislature also declined last session to pass a bill that would grant relief to people still in prison on non-unanimous verdicts.
Jackson, meanwhile, has become eligible to be considered for parole. At his first hearing in 2020, two of the three members of his parole panel voted to grant his parole. But at the time, a unanimous vote from the panel was required.
But at his hearing on Friday, Jackson will now only need two of the three to vote in favor to be granted parole, the board’s Executive Director Francis Abbott told The Lens last November. Abbott said that the parole board adopted new rules around unanimity requirements for parole votes last year. Under current policy, individuals are able to be granted parole by a majority, rather than unanimous, vote if they meet a number of conditions — such as not having any serious disciplinary infractions in the previous year, and completing 100 hours of “pre-release programming.”
While Jackson has mostly maintained his innocence of the 1996 robbery, at his first parole hearing he accepted responsibility for the crime. Jackson’s lawyer, Claude-Michael Comeau, said that Jackson made his statements because of what he characterized as the “unfair” rules of the parole board, which typically requires people in prison to admit guilt in order to be given a chance at freedom.
During that hearing, Jackson touted his accomplishments in prison — including receiving his GED, a technical diploma in culinary arts, and completing several religious courses. One member of his panel, who voted to grant, said she was “very impressed overall” with Jackson’s presentation and prison record.
The warden of David Wade Correctional Center, Jerry Goodwin, where Jackson has been held since 2019 when he was sent there following a disciplinary write-up at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, also had positive things to say about Jackson.
“He’s put his best foot forward since he’s been here,” Goodwin said at the 2020 hearing.
One member of the board, however, said that while Jackson was “on the right track,” he voted to deny parole due to the law enforcement opposition and prior disciplinary write-ups.
Comeau, Jackson’s lawyer, says that Jackson has not had any write-ups since his previous parole hearing, and that he leads a prayer service that meets almost daily.
“When it comes to programming, it really does seem like he’s done everything they can offer him,” Comeau said. “He’s now just looking to do what he can to help others when he gets out.”
Jackson’s mother, Mollie Peoples, has been a vocal advocate for her son’s release. Peoples is in her mid-70s now, and is in poor health. In 2020, shortly after Jackson’s parole was denied, she had an aortic aneurysm, which required surgery. She said the stress caused by the unfavorable outcome and Jackson’s continued incarceration may have been a contributing factor.
“It wasn’t the cause, but it helped,” Peoples told The Lens and Al Jazeera last year. “The heart can only take so much.”