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Louisiana man, in prison on a Jim Crow conviction, gets a new hearing

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, a man who says he's innocent asks a judge to end his jail term after a quarter-century. In a documentary, Brandon Jackson of Louisiana says there's no way to describe how he feels in prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE JIM CROW CONVICTIONS")

BRANDON JACKSON: They don't even have a word in the dictionary. And I've been waking up like that since 1996. I think about it all day, every day. I'm 49 now. I'll be 50 December 9.

INSKEEP: Now, Brandon Jackson is not the only person in prison who says he didn't do it, but he has something others do not. Members of the jury that convicted him also didn't think he was proven guilty. Al Jazeera features Jackson in a documentary on Louisiana's non-unanimous jury verdicts. Reporter Natasha Del Toro reviewed the trial from the 1990s and found no physical evidence connected Jackson with the crime.

NATASHA DEL TORO: No one was able to even identify Brandon Jackson. And the state relied on the testimony of the co-conspirator, named Joseph Young, who agreed to testify against Brandon Jackson in exchange for a much lighter sentence.

INSKEEP: Ten of 12 jury members found Jackson guilty, and under Louisiana law, that was enough for a life sentence. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court found non-unanimous juries unconstitutional, but they did not make that ruling retroactive, so many people like Jackson remain in prison. Del Toro found that the non-unanimous juries grew out of a specific time in Louisiana history

DEL TORO: After the Civil War, the white leaders in the state held a convention in 1898 that was really designed to ensure the supremacy of the white race. And we know this because they spelled it out. It's right there in the liner notes of the convention. And they implemented this non-unanimous jury verdict, which would allow them to dismiss or mute the voices of Black jurors.

INSKEEP: How would that be the case? That may not be obvious to people. Why would a non-unanimous jury be something that would discriminate?

DEL TORO: If you had, for example, two Black jurors who did not believe somebody was guilty, these Black defendants then are found guilty, and the Black jurors who would have found them not guilty are silenced.

INSKEEP: The 1898 law passed in a time after slavery was abolished and Louisiana was replacing slave labor with convict labor.

DEL TORO: If you had more African Americans who were being convicted, then you could continue to have free labor. Interestingly, Louisiana incarcerates more people than any other state, and a disproportionate number of those people are African American. It does seem like the laws are working as they were designed to work 125 years ago.

INSKEEP: In this modern-day case, Brandon Jackson is Black. Two jury members who voted to acquit were also Black. The white jurors who voted to convict included Stacey Marks, who told her story for the documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE JIM CROW CONVICTIONS")

STACEY MARKS: He was very sure of himself. He seemed to have a very - he smiled a lot. He seemed very relaxed. But I remember Brandon made a lot of eye contact with the jurors, and he seemed to be pretty sure of himself. And like I said, I felt he was real - really overconfident.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing there when you listen to that?

DEL TORO: Stacey Marks. Before I even comment on that, I want to say that she was very gracious in talking to us. And she also emphasized that she grew up in the South and that she definitely does not consider herself racist.

That said, I think what you hear there is really perhaps an unconscious form of racism. The history of racism in this country is a Black man could lose his life for looking at a white woman. And in this case, Brandon Jackson lost his freedom.

INSKEEP: What did Louisiana officials say to you when you asked them about this law that cannot apply going forward - it's unconstitutional now - but is not being overturned in past cases?

DEL TORO: The Louisiana state Legislature had an opportunity to apply the Supreme Court decision retroactively, but they voted that down, and it was in a straight party vote. You know, we contacted some of these Republican lawmakers, and one in particular that we spoke with said that they felt good about the progress that they had made - this law has been banned in Louisiana - but that they feel comfortable with the step that they've taken. Some of these lawmakers told us off camera that the reason why they voted this down was because of influence from the District Attorneys Association Louisiana.

INSKEEP: Oh, district attorneys don't want to go back and reopen all these old cases.

DEL TORO: It would be a lot of work. It would be a lot of work. There's about 1,500 people sitting in prison right now on these non-unanimous jury convictions. So if they had to go back and retry these cases, you know, that would mean a whole lot of work for them, and it could get complicated.

INSKEEP: I want to note that your documentary also interviews Mr. Jackson's mother, Mollie Peoples, who's in her 70s. Let's listen to what she says after another failed court hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE JIM CROW CONVICTIONS")

MOLLIE PEOPLES: I don't have long. And I said (ph) my heart surgery is on (ph) six months. And I'm trying to stay. I've asked God to allow me to live long enough to see him go free. But at this rate, I'm not going to make it.

INSKEEP: We're talking to you because another hearing is coming up. What is that hearing about, and what is she thinking?

DEL TORO: Brandon has filed a post-conviction relief application to see if a judge would be willing to retry his case based on the fact that he was convicted by a non-unanimous jury. This has been in the works now for a few months, so this is part of why you hear Miss Mollie's voice - the frustration in her voice because she feels like this has just been this dragged-out process. At this point, what happens today is going to determine Brandon's fate, if he's actually going to have a retrial or not. And if he doesn't, that means that he's got about 15 more years in prison.

INSKEEP: Natasha Del Toro is a reporter for Al Jazeera's investigative documentary program "Fault Lines." Thanks so much.

DEL TORO: Thank you so much, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE JEFFERSON'S "SMOKY MOUNTAINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.