VOL. 130 | NO. 100 | Friday, May 22, 2015
Jackson Plea Preserves Controversy
By Bill Dries
There will be no retrial of Noura Jackson for the murder of her mother.
But Jackson’s Alford plea Wednesday, May 20, to a charge of voluntary manslaughter with a 15-year prison sentence, is hardly the last chapter in a story that began with the 2005 murder in East Memphis and the 2009 trial that included 40 witnesses and nearly 400 trial exhibits.
District Attorney General Mike Dunavant, the special prosecutor in the Noura Jackson retrial, talks about Wednesday’s plea deal with Jackson in which she entered an Alford plea to a charge of voluntary manslaughter in the 2005 death of her mother.
(Daily News/Bill Dries)
Within minutes of the plea before Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft, the prosecution and defense already were at odds over whether Jackson was admitting guilt.
The Alford plea means a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges a jury would most likely find them guilty of the charges.
Under terms of the plea, Jackson was sentenced to 15 years in prison with credit for the nine years she already has been imprisoned. The time served means she will get a chance at parole with state prison officials possibly before the summer.
For her, the plea meant a likely prison release. For prosecutors, there is the legal record.
Attorneys Valerie T. Corder and Michael R. Working, representing Jackson, were adamant that Jackson maintains her innocence.
“Today’s plea is not an admission of guilt,” they said in a written statement. “The appointed prosecutor has offered Noura a resolution that assures that she goes free and does not have to risk a second unjust trial in a system in which she has little confidence.”
Special prosecutor Mike Dunavant said the Alford plea is an admission of guilt on the public record despite the qualifications from her attorneys.
“Ultimately it does not really matter in the grand scheme of finding an adjudication of guilt whether she believes or admits herself to be guilty or not,” Dunavant said as he acknowledged that the case against her was “entirely circumstantial” and that she has always maintained she didn’t do it.
“That's exactly what happened here today was an adjudicaton of guilt and a finding of guilt regarding a knowing and intentional killing of Jennifer Jackson,” he added. “That's what Noura Jackson pled guilty to.”
In August 2014, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed Jackson's murder conviction and ordered a new trial, citing comments then-assistant district attorney general Amy Weirich made in closing statements. Weirich stood by Jackson and said: “Just tell us where you were. That's all we are asking, Noura.”
The court ruled the remark was improper and called attention to Jackson’s decision not to testify in her own defense.
The court also ordered the retrial because of evidence that wasn’t disclosed that could have allowed the defense to offer another theory about what happened.
The Shelby County District Attorney General’s office recused itself from the retrial and Dunavant, who is District Attorney General for the 25th Judicial District in rural west Tennessee, was selected to prosecute.
For Dunavant, another part of the court’s reversal was central to his decision on the Alford plea. The court was critical of the prosecution for the use of character witnesses that testified about Jackson’s alleged drug and alcohol use and sexual activity. Dunavant said the ruling set “restrictive” parameters for the retrial that he interpreted as barring the use of such testimony.
The activities those witnesses alleged were central to the prosecution’s theory of Jackson’s motive for killing her mother.