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Innocence Project helps free another person from prison

This week, the UIS Innocence Project held an awards banquet at the Illinois State Fairgrounds to celebrate their recent successes. Another name has been added to that list, that of Peggy Jo Jackson who won clemency from Governor Pat Quinn on Friday, March 29, 2013.

In 1987, she was tried and convicted of murder in the first degree for indirect involvement in the death of her husband, William. Peggy Jo Jackson of Shelbyville was released from prison last week after serving nearly 26 years for a murder her brother admitted to committing.

William Jackson, according to the defendant and her attorneys, was a violent and abusive man who beat and sexually assaulted his wife. After a week of particularly bad abuse and during a violent argument, Peggy Jo Jackson took her children with her to seek help. During the morning of Dec. 3, 1986, Jackson’s older brother took a .38-caliber revolver, an accomplice, and a bat to his brother-in-law’s house.

When they left, William Jackson was dead and his corpse was burning in a gasoline fire set in a nearby ditch. Richard Harshbarger and his accomplice, sister-in-law Debra Gatons, were consistently unclear about who had fired the fatal shot – giving conflicting depositions in court that both blamed the other for the death.

Peggy Jo Jackson was nowhere near the house at the time the murder was committed. However, she was convicted of the murder, along with Harshbarger, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The prosecutor consistently pressed the case forward based on circumstantial evidence and a theory that Peggy Jo Jackson had coerced her brother to commit murder.

This was based mostly on the testimony that she was “emotionless” and unaffected at the time of the sheriff’s deposition by a deputy, as well as the fact that she left the front door unlocked when fleeing the house. The demeanor that Peggy Jo Jackson exhibited, the defense testified, was actually from the powerful antidepressant drugs administered by a hospital after the murder. As for the lock, there simply was no lock on the door. It had rotted out or been removed long before, due to the dilapidated state of the house. Many windows were missing panes and the building was in a general state of disrepair.

According to prison records, Harshbarger died in prison in 2006. Jackson’s case was heard before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in October 2012 and picked up by the Illinois Innocence Project three years before that review, which resulted in the four-year-long fight for clemency that culminated on March 29. Governor Quinn signed an executive order that day, commuting her sentence to time served and mandated her release from the Logan Correctional Center.

Jackson has, since her release, moved to South Carolina and rejoined the rest of her family. She says she will work to be a service dog trainer, a skill she picked up through her time in prison education programs.

Erica Nichols Cook, an attorney with the Illinois Innocence Project at UIS, said Jackson wasn’t ready to speak to media about her experiences.

“We’re just beyond thrilled that Governor Quinn did the right thing,” Cook said. “Twenty-five years is a long time for something we don’t think she did.”

Andrea Carlson, a UIS legal studies major and member of the Conviction of the Innocent class offered by Project staff said, “Well, from a legal standpoint, I really don’t think they had enough evidence to charge. And during her trial, nothing was mentioned about the domestic abuse she faced, which would have definitely had an effect on the jury. I don’t think she deserved the conviction or the harsh life sentence, either. I think a life sentence is too harsh for someone indirectly ‘involved’ with a murder and who had faced so much abuse.”

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