By Chris Bowling
The murky fluorescent light shown down on the small crowd, their plastic fold-up chairs covering the faded lines of a basketball court. Hot sauce pooled under fried chicken and potato wedges. But the food on paper plates sat untouched in the laps of the 50 people who’d gathered here as Remee Greer began to cry.
“It just feels like this is our time,” she said to the crowd in a gymnasium on 37th and Lake streets.
For nearly 21 years their family had fought to bring home her brother, Earnest Jackson, who they believe was wrongly convicted of murder when he was 17. Greer, his youngest sister, said they’d gotten nowhere until activists started to share Jackson’s name and story. Soon protesters started screaming it alongside names like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and James Scurlock, the movement’s aim became not only to bring Jackson home, but to address larger injustices.
“We’re speaking these names, speaking about what might change for the living, someone that’s alive right now and going through what I’ve been calling a civilized lynching,” said Jason Witmer, a friend who met Jackson in prison who serves on ACLU of Nebraska’s board of directors. “When you lynch somebody you determine justice needs to happen in this case. You don’t care about nothing else. We feel this person needs to be punished and they go and get them and string them up.”
“That’s what happened to Earnest. That’s what’s still happening to Earnest.”
On the night of Sept. 1, 1999, 17-year-old Larry Perry was shot 19 times in the back near 46th Street and Redman Avenue after an argument over stolen wheel rims.
At the time Jackson was a typical teenager from North Omaha, he said in an interview with The Reader. He liked watching and playing sports. He loved spending time with his family, especially his little cousins. But he was also a teenager with little direction.
“A lot of things I was doing, I was being a follower for a lot of things,” he said. “I didn’t know who I was and it got me into trouble. I was just like any other kid.”
Three men, including Jackson were arrested in the death of Perry. Jackson, who claimed he was at his aunt’s home at the time of the murder but was arrested because he was close friends with the other suspects, was tried first. The jury unanimously convicted him of first-degree murder based on eyewitness testimony. They did not, however, find him guilty of murder with a firearm–a conclusion Jackson’s lawyer at the time called “so logically inconsistent.”
One of the other arrested men chose not to testify, pleading his Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination. Later that same person admitted to the shooting in his own trial, pleading self defense. Juries acquitted him and the third person arrested in suspicion for the murder.
Despite the new information, Jackson was not released or given a new trial. Instead, in 2016, he was re-sentenced to 30 to 40 years while he maintained his innocence.
“I talk with people about this and they can’t believe something like this could happen,” Jeff Pickens, his attorney, told The Omaha World Herald in 2016. “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.’ ”
Tracy Jackson, Earnest’s wife, said she was skeptical of Jackson’s when she first met him as an employee at the State Penitentiary. A lot of people say they’re innocent, she said.
But the more she learned about his case, the more it unraveled.
“Really, anybody could be in his situation, literally anybody,” she said. “And the sad thing is there’s so many more like him. He’s not the only innocent person in prison. There’s so many more, and the fact we can’t do anything to rectify it is the problem.”
The Nebraska Supreme Court upheld both Jackson’s conviction in 2002 and re-sentencing in 2017. He must serve 13.5 years before he’s eligible for parole. If he’s not paroled, he’ll be in for another 10 years.
Until then the 38 year old is in the Nebraska State Penitentiary where he’s now spent more than half his life.
Jackson was ready to give up. But something wouldn’t let him.
“It’d be more harmful to me [to stop speaking out] because I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the eye when I wash my face in the morning,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep well to know I could have done more to get out and prove I didn’t do this. Not only would I have let myself down, I’d have let my wife and family down.”
A New Movement
Protests erupted across the city, and the country, in the summer of 2020. Witmer saw this as the perfect opportunity to raise awareness about Jackson and an injustice many Nebraskans had never heard of.
He shouted Jackson’s name at protests. At first he got some pushback but eventually people started getting interested. Then his sister, Latisha Jackson, reached out to Linel Quinn who started efforts to organize people toward a strategic plan to bring Jackson home. Soon the dormant Facebook page his wife set up flooded with followers. The bi-weekly meetings swelled, interview requests came in and it felt like they’d finally been heard.
“With all this attention now, it’s rejuvenated me,” Jackson said. “It gave me that hope. It gave me that conviction that there are people who want me out there, that I’m still part of this community. I always thought I had somewhere to go to, but hearing all these people rally for me has motivated me to say, ‘Yeah I’m not wrong for getting my voice out there.’”
The movement also gained allies from a variety of backgrounds. At the Friday, Sept. 11, meeting, Janell Folkerts, a marketing consultant from Lincoln, said she promised to leverage her connections with the governor, attorney general and secretary of state to free Jackson. Folkerts identifies as an independent but leans conservative and has helped elect Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson as well as organizing protests against mask regulations. Once the state’s leaders, who sit on Nebraska’s Board of Pardons, hear this story they’ll have no choice but to exonerate him.
“How can you support freedom when there’s an innocent man behind bars?” Folkerts asked. “I don’t care who you are, that’s an issue we should all get behind.”
State Senator Justin Wayne said the first day of next year’s legislative session he’ll introduce a bill to give Jackson and others a path to not only freedom, but also a clean record.
He tried to introduce an amendment this past session that would give those convicted due to withheld testimony, new legal opportunities. That amendment failed to be added to the bill. But just as the movement to free Jackson is connecting people from a variety of backgrounds, Wayne thinks he’ll have little trouble getting this bill passed.
“I understand the family wants him out either way and I respect that,” Wayne said. “I get that. But for me it’s not okay for him to be pardoned. I want his conviction erased.”
But though Jackson’s story has compelled this level of action, everyone involved, including Jackson himself, understands the fervor is rooted in a larger conversation.
On the night of Sept. 11, the light outside the gymnasium long dissipated, the audience turned their attention to the back of the room. There, a video projected on the back wall. Pictures of Jackson as a child dissolved into a man with shoulder length hair and a khaki prison jumpsuit.
“I’m living proof of what miscarriage of justice looks like in this new millennium,” Jackson says, his voice clouded in the static of an outgoing call from Nebraska State Penitentiary. “But the sad thing is, it’s what it’s always looked like for the most part in the United States of America for people of color in low-income communities.”
Searching for Justice
This summer, Omaha’s justice system has made national and local headlines in its handling of the case of James Scurlock, a 22-year-old Black man shot and killed by White bar owner Jake Gardner. Gardner recently committed suicide after a grand jury indicted him on several charges including manslaughter.
Wayne has helped Scurlock’s family navigate the justice system after County Prosecutor Don Kleine found Gardner’s shooting justified self defense. One avenue would have been Gardner’s trial, but Wayne said he and the family are still exploring other legal options.
Though they occurred years apart, Wayne said Scurlock and Jackson have something in common: a search for justice.
“What we know is that a young man lost his life, what we know is that a young man is sitting in prison for a crime he didn’t commit with the two other people being found not guilty,” Wayne said. “I focus on how we change those things rather than how we got here. Because how we got here is irrelevant. We have to change the system.”
But a victory in the Scurlock case or the freeing of Jackson alone won’t solve these issues. Wayne is focused on affecting change in the realms he can control. A radical shift in public opinion needs to come from people getting involved, staying vocal and, most importantly, voting on Nov. 3, he said.
To many, that seems to be happening.
The protests that occurred daily and eventually weekly have kept these issues alive. From gated homes along Happy Hollow to chipped-paint storefronts in East Omaha, the same signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” are on full display. Some stay vocal on social media. Others show up to Omaha City Council meetings or gatherings like that to free Jackson.
Connecting these threads was Witmer’s intention when he first started sharing Jackson’s name.
“We should all be speaking about the injustice we see in the world,” he said. “However as Nebraska, we’re responsible for bringing forth what’s happening in our state.”
But at the end of the day these are still human stories with human loss. The loss of time, the loss of life and the frustration that justice hinges on an imperfect system.
But for Jackson, who’s been in custody longer than many of the protesters saying his name have been alive, the future seems bright.
For years he and his family have been quietly optimistic about pardons or paroles or light resentencings. Optimistic but always braced for the worst. Not anymore. When they talk about Jackson it comes with big smiles, happy tears and an unwavering sense that this is their shot.
Along with #FreeEarnestJackson face masks and t-shirts, his family also sold portraits of Jackson to raise money for legal costs.
In the picture Jackson’s dreads fall to his shoulders, his chin is pointed upward and a smile beams against a baby blue backdrop. The light illuminates his face like a new dawn in front of him.
“I’ll never forget what they did to me, but I can forgive and let it be,” Jackson said. “My biggest excitement is to be able to go out there and be the person that I’m meant to be and prove to them that people like me, you don’t have to be afraid of us.”