In an orange jumpsuit and shackles, Earnest Jackson walked into a Douglas County courtroom to a round of applause from his family members.
He walked out to tears from those same relatives.
Douglas County District Judge J Russell Derr resentenced Jackson, 33, to 60 to 80 years in prison — a sentence that prompted two of his family members to shoot out of their seats and several others to slump in disappointment.
Under the sentence — which is cut in half to 30 to 40 years — Jackson now must serve 13½ years before he is eligible for parole. Absent parole, he must serve 23½ years before he can be released.
Originally sentenced to life in prison — until the U.S. Supreme Court forbade automatic life sentences for juveniles — Jackson, then 17, was convicted in the September 1999 shooting death of Larry Perry, also 17, near 46th Street and Redman Avenue.
Jackson and two others were accused of shooting Perry, who had a gun in his waistband, 19 times after an argument over tire rims.
“This is going to be so hard on him and us,” Jackson’s mother, Brenda Greer, said between tears. “He was expecting a decent number.
“For this to be imposed on him, it’s just too much.”
His family is convinced that Jackson is innocent. His attorney is, too.
At best, attorney Jeff Pickens said, Jackson’s conviction is murky.
Pickens, of the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, pointed to several factors:
» The prosecution’s key witness identified Jackson only after seeing him with the other two defendants at an initial court hearing, Pickens says. Pickens further alleges that the witness’s identification of Jackson appeared to combine the physical characteristics of two other men who were at the scene.
» The victim in this case was armed with a gun — and two of Jackson’s co-defendants claimed self-defense.
» Jackson was convicted only of the murder charge, not the accompanying gun charge, leading Pickens and others to believe that Jackson’s jury found him guilty of murder under an accomplice theory.
» Jackson was the only one of three co-defendants to be convicted. Co-defendant Shalomar Cooperrider indicated that he would not testify at Jackson’s trial. Then after Jackson went to trial first, Cooperrider testified at his own trial that he shot Perry in self-defense.
A jury acquitted Cooperrider. A subsequent jury then acquitted the third defendant, Danti Chillous.
But prosecutor Katie Benson noted that Tuesday was a resentencing hearing, “not a retrial, not a closing argument.”
Just like Jackson, Perry was 17 when he was killed, Benson said. Unlike Jackson, she said, Perry didn’t get a second chance.
She said jurors believed witness Elexsis Fulton’s identification of Jackson as one of the men who pistol-whipped and shot Perry. She said witness testimony indicates that Perry’s gun was in his waistband and wasn’t brandished before he was shot.
And, Benson said, the Nebraska Supreme Court has reviewed Jackson’s case — and has upheld the jury’s guilty verdict.
Pickens countered that the Nebraska Supreme Court previously has found nothing wrong with other trials that led to wrongful convictions. He pointed to the Beatrice Six case — in which six people were convicted and imprisoned in the rape and slaying of an elderly woman, only to have their convictions overturned after DNA implicated another man.
At a minimum, Pickens noted, the only man convicted in this case was Jackson — a man whom jurors believed didn’t fire a gun. Cooperrider was acquitted; Chillous was acquitted.
Pickens argued that Jackson would have been acquitted if he had gone to trial after Cooperrider and Chillous — especially if Cooperrider had testified at Jackson’s trial that he acted in self-defense.
“I talk with people about this and they can’t believe something like this could happen,” Pickens said. “How can there be a conviction for aiding and abetting murder when the alleged principals are found not guilty? The unsatisfactory answer is, ‘That’s just the way it goes.’ ”
The other twist to this case: Cooperrider and Chillous each were shot and killed in separate shootings in northeast Omaha, five years after their acquittals.
Meanwhile, Jackson has sat in prison, maintaining his innocence and hoping for a chance to prove himself.
Pickens said his client has transformed himself in prison from “a punk to a mentor.”
While in solitary confinement, Jackson told the judge, he read a quote from Albert Einstein that changed his life: “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.”
Jackson went from the punk who was written up more than 200 times to a prisoner who mentors other inmates.
He went on to get his GED, to work in woodworking and to work at a prison job using industrial power tools. He told the judge that he plans to become a welder.
He said he has joined every support group he can — from Native American to Latino clubs.
“There is more that connects us than separates us,” Jackson told the judge. “All of this has opened my eyes to a passion I didn’t know I have — to see people succeed.”
Jackson had asked to be let out at the earliest possible date — within four years.
When he learned that he instead is facing at least another 13 years, he lowered his chin to his chest and closed his eyes.
Then he rose, turned around and smiled widely at his family, who filled the courtroom.
“Even though he’s innocent, we didn’t expect for him to walk out free today,” sister Tesha Jackson said. “But we also didn’t expect for him to get 13 more years.
“It’s not fair, and it’s not right.”
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