VOL. 132 | NO. 58 | Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Private Reprimand Ends Jackson Case Aftermath
By Bill Dries
The private reprimand for District Attorney General Amy Weirich issued by the state Board of Professional Responsibility is probably the last formal word on the way the prosecutor’s office tried Noura Jackson for the murder of her mother.
And it is very few words at that since the reprimand Weirich announced Monday, March 20, she had accepted is private. The announcement came as a panel of three attorneys was to hear two days of testimony on the matter Thursday and Friday.
When asked if the reprimand covered her comments to the jury during closing statements in the 2009 trial or evidence the prosecution didn’t turn over to the defense until five days after Jackson was convicted – each judged to be serious enough by the Tennessee Supreme Court to warrant overturning the conviction and ordering a new trial – Weirich said it was “just kind of an all conclusive, we’re getting rid of it all and we will give you the public reprimand you asked for.”
Weirich and Assistant District Attorney Stephen Jones hired their own attorneys at their own expense to defend them against the complaint from a friend of Jackson.
Weirich pointed out the complaint was not from a judge or an attorney, but a member of the public who does not work in the law.
Nevertheless, the Board of Professional Responsibility pursued the complaint through a hearing earlier this year for Jones. In that hearing, a panel of three attorneys concluded Jones’ error in turning over the evidence about a key witness that might have been helpful to the defense was inadvertent. The panel also found that Jones notified the court and the defense within five days of Jackson’s guilty verdict of the evidence.
Weirich, who was not yet district attorney general, in making closing statements to the jury stood next to Noura Jackson and said, “Just tell us where you were. That’s all we are asking, Noura.”
While the reprimand of Weirich by the board is private, the Tennessee Supreme Court took Weirich to task in a very public way in August 2014 when it overturned Jackson’s murder conviction and ordered a new trial.
The 52-page ruling and unanimous opinion in the Jackson case included a footnote that referred to three appeals court rulings involving comments made by Shelby County prosecutors during closing statements.
“The prosecutor in Shelby County is doubtless well aware of these principles,” the footnote begins, referring to a part of the ruling in which the court emphasized that while closing arguments shouldn’t be “unduly restricted,” any remarks about a defendant using their right not to testify should be “off limits to any conscientious prosecutor.”
Jackson accepted an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter on the path to a second murder trial that Weirich was pursuing. By doing so, Jackson agreed that the evidence in a second trial probably would have shown she was guilty.
The distinction between that and being guilty is one Weirich and Jackson will continue to differ on. Jackson, through her attorney, has always contended it does not mean she is admitting guilt.
“On June 5, 2005, Jennifer Jackson was brutally stabbed and murdered at the hands of her daughter,” Weirich said Monday at a press conference in which two dozen staff members and her husband were present.
“Hopefully today’s resolution will give peace to her and to her friends and family who loved her so deeply,” she added.
Critics of Weirich’s handling of the case and others point to a series of four other murder convictions overturned by appeals courts in the last 2 1/2 years as well as a child rape conviction, a bad check charge and an attempted murder case.
“What remains unchanged is a pattern of overturned convictions, improper conduct, and unsettling reprimands from the state’s highest court,” said Josh Spickler, an attorney and founder of Just City, a nonprofit criminal justice reform group. “The agreement and dismissal do little to restore the confidence of the community in its criminal justice system.”
Weirich disagreed with the overturning of the conviction and the move by the board to look further into the complaint.
She points to American Bar Association standards that call for private reprimands that do not “unnecessarily stigmatize a lawyer from whom the public needs no protection.”
“My office handles over 200,000 cases every year and no doubt errors will be made,” Weirich added.
Many more appeals of convictions are rejected by appellate courts when the court finds that even though there were mistakes during a trial, the mistakes didn’t rise to the level of overturning a conviction.
“It is indeed a testament to the integrity and professionalism of my office that we avoid trial errors at all costs,” Weirich said Monday. “It has been a long and hard year for my family. Today is a validation that no matter the sacrifice it is imperative every day and always to do the right thing for the right reason. Not the easy thing, but the right thing.”