Nebraska Board of Pardons rejects Earnest Jackson’s commutation request

Attorney general says board doesn’t ‘retry cases’; Ricketts says he was a bad inmate

By: - September 19, 2022 2:17 pm

Earnest Jackson’s mother, Brenda Jackson (in orange shirt) and supporters, lock arms in silence after the denial of Earnest Jackson’s commutation. (Jazari Kual/Nebraska Examiner)

This report was updated after the hearing with remarks from Nebraska’s attorney genera and governor and a response from Jackson advocates.

LINCOLN — Without comment until long after a throng of supporters had departed, the Nebraska Board of Pardons on Monday rejected the commutation request of Earnest Jackson.

Jackson’s supporters maintain that he has spent 22 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, that he wasn’t present when it happened and that he is victim of a horrible injustice.

‘Such disrespect’

“I’ve never seen such disrespect,” one of Jackson’s supporters, Jason Witmer of Lincoln, said after the board didn’t take or make comments prior to the 3-0 vote.

Both the son and girlfriend of the man killed in 1999 were supportive of Jackson’s release in letters to the Pardons Board, which consists of Gov. Pete Ricketts, Attorney General Doug Peterson and Secretary of State Bob Evnen.

Earnest Jackson at his graduation ceremony. He has obtained his GED while in prison. (Courtesy of the Jackson family)

Another man charged with Jackson confessed to the killing but was acquitted due to self-defense. During his trial, he testified that Jackson was not present during the fatal confrontation. The third person charged was acquitted because of the second man’s confession.

But Jackson’s trial preceded the other trials, and he was found guilty without the benefit of the testimony of the other co-defendants, who are now both dead.

‘More to story’

After the afternoon-long Pardons Board meeting, Ricketts and Peterson responded to questions from the Examiner about why they rejected Jackson’s request.

Peterson said the man killed in the 1999 confrontation, Larry Perry, was shot six times in the back with three different guns — a .22-caliber, a .40-caliber and a 9 mm — and that other eyewitnesses had placed Jackson at the scene of the shooting. The jury that convicted Jackson heard that evidence, he said.

“There was more to the story,” Peterson said. “And we don’t retry cases on the Pardons Board.”

Jackson also has a poor disciplinary record in prison, Ricketts added, saying he’s been cited 275 times for disciplinary problems.

‘Do you know him?’

“Do you know him? He’s a decent human being,” interjected Lorene Ludy, a Lincoln prison volunteer who works with Jackson on presentations to other inmates about alternatives to violence. “I see him every Saturday.”

“Two hundred and seventy five violations is not the type of behavior we’re expecting from inmates who want a pardon,” Ricketts said.

“I was hoping that you’d err on the side of mercy,” said Ludy, who followed the governor down a State Capitol hallway after the meeting to continue to plead her case.

Ricketts added that the oldest sibling of Perry, and his mother, both asked the Pardons Board to deny a commutation, arguing, among other things, that Jackson has never expressed remorse.

Few writeups in recent years

When asked about the reasons cited by Peterson and Ricketts, supporters of Jackson said that the disciplinary records have been distorted and that jury verdicts in the co-defendants’ cases back up Jackson’s innocence.

Megan Rollag, one of three managers of the “Send Ernest Home” campaign, said most of Jackson’s disciplinary write-ups were for mouthing off shortly after entering prison as a teenager.

She said that only four of the incidents occurred in the past seven years and that the most serious, being caught with a large amount of drug contraband, was not Jackson’s fault — another inmate later admitted, in a letter, to stashing the contraband.

Rollag said the Pardons Board failed to note that Jackson received a positive write-up in 2021 for preventing a fight in the prison yard.

Jackson’s attorney, Daniel Gutman of Omaha, said that a jury acquitted his client of possession of a deadly weapon, so he didn’t fire any shots at Perry, and that jury verdicts for the other two men charged with murder led to acquittals and that it’s legally impossible to be found guilty of being an accessory to self-defense.

“We would love for the public to look at the jury verdicts,” Gutman said.

Just three minutes after Monday’s meeting began, the Pardons Board rejected Jackson’s request, without comment, to commute his sentence, lumping his request with those of three other convicted felons.

Attorney, son had hoped to speak

Just prior to the board’s 3-0 vote, Ricketts told the hearing room filled with Jackson supporters that the board can reject requests en masse and without comment based on the “gravity of the facts.”

That was the only mention that hinted at why Jackson’s request was rejected, until after the meeting.

Daniel Gutman, Earnest Jackson’s attorney, speaks to the media about the hearing. (Jazari Kual/Nebraska Examiner)

Both Jackson’s attorney, Gutman, and the son of Larry Perry had sought to address the Pardons Board on Monday. But Gutman said the board was within its rules to make a decision without taking testimony.

Gutman said he was unsure what steps can be taken next to earn Jackson’s release from he called a “legally impossible verdict” — guilty of being an accomplice to a self-defense slaying.

Jackson, Gutman said, is first eligible for parole in 2029. Ricketts said the inmate will be able to plead his case then.

Parole eligible

“But I don’t think people are going to be willing to sit back and wait until 2029,” said Gutman.

After court challenges have failed to free Jackson, his supporters turned to the Board of Pardons in hopes it could take action to free him.

Witmer said he wasn’t optimistic, given the past injustices faced by Jackson.

Jackson, in a phone call to supporters before the brief Pardons Board hearing, had urged his supporters not to be destructive in response to the board’s decision and to remain hopeful, he said.

“It’s not a gray area,” Witmer said of Jackson’s innocence. “But it is a gray area politically.”

Former Marine pardoned

The 3-0 vote denying Jackson’s request served to clear most of the seats in the State Capitol hearing room at the beginning of the 3 1/2-hour long meeting, except for two rows in front, occupied by members of the American Legion, wearing their signature caps.

They stayed to show their support for a former Marine, John Arias, who was seeking a pardon from a 1993 conviction for first-degree sexual assault.

Every member of the board said they respected that the American Legion was backing Arias before voting 2-1 (Evnen voted “no”) to grant the pardon.

Supporters of Earnest Jackson lock arms in a moment of silence on the north steps of the Capitol Building in Lincoln. (Jazari Kual/Nebraska Examiner)


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.