Friday, August 12, 2011

The Impending Execution of Jerry Terrell Jackson

Jerry Terrell Jackson sits on death row awaiting execution by the people of Virginia. He was convicted of the rape and murder of 88-year-old Ruth W. Phillips. I provide below the factual summary from the appellate decision Jackson v. Commonwealth, 2004.
Around 7 p.m., on Sunday, August 26, 2001, Richard Phillips discovered the body of his 88-year-old mother, Ruth Phillips, lying "twisted and exposed" on a bed in her bedroom. Phillips explained that his mother's "leg was twisted around, and her pubic region was exposed[; h]er breast was exposed[; and h]er nightgown was up around her neck." Mrs. Phillips lived alone in an apartment located in Williamsburg, and her son had become concerned about her well-being that day because she had not attended church and was not answering her telephone. After finding his mother's body, Phillips went outside and used a cellular telephone to call the "911" emergency number. While waiting for emergency personnel to arrive, he noticed that the screen on a bathroom window in the apartment had been removed.
A subsequent autopsy of Mrs. Phillips' body revealed a contusion on her nose and some hemorrhaging of minute blood vessels in her cheeks and eyes. There were also two lacerations to her vagina, one on the exterior area and the other one on the interior area. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy opined that the cause of death was asphyxia. Death by asphyxia, according to the medical examiner, occurs when the brain is without a supply of oxygen for four to six minutes although unconsciousness may come about within 15 to 30 seconds.
An investigator with the James City County Police Department, Jeff Vellines, went to Mrs. Phillips' apartment and collected several items of physical evidence. He found a window screen, mirror case, and cosmetic items outside the apartment near the master bathroom window. Inside, Vellines discovered a black pocketbook lying on the floor next to Mrs. Phillips' bed, and a brown wallet underneath the pocketbook. The wallet did not contain any money. However, a white square piece of paper found in the wallet contained one latent fingerprint of value for identification purposes. That fingerprint was later compared with the fingerprints of the defendant and found to be "one and the same."
Another investigator at the crime scene recovered a hair from Mrs. Phillips chest area and another hair on the bed below the stomach area. During the autopsy of Mrs. Phillips' body, additional hairs were collected from her left thigh area. Microscopic examination of those hairs by a forensic scientist revealed that one of the hairs recovered from Mrs. Phillips' thigh area and the other two hairs were pubic hairs, but they were not consistent with samples of Mrs. Phillips' pubic hair. These same three hairs along with samples of the defendant's blood and hair were later subjected to mitochondrial DNA analysis. According to the forensic scientist who performed the testing, Jackson could not be excluded as the source of the hairs found on Mrs. Phillips' body and bed. The "mtDNA sequence data" of each of those hairs matched the "corresponding mtDNA sequence of the blood" taken from the defendant.
In December 2001, Vellines and Eric Peterson, also an investigator with the James City County Police Department, interviewed Jackson in the James City County Law Enforcement Center. After waiving his Miranda rights, Jackson admitted entering Mrs. Phillips' apartment, searching through and taking money out of her purse, and then exiting through a back window. Jackson stated that he did not know that Mrs. Phillips was at home, and that, when he turned on the light and was going through her purse, Mrs. Phillips, who was lying in bed, confronted him and stated, "What do you want? I'll give you whatever, just get out." In the defendant's words, "[I]t just scared me and I covered her up[.]" Jackson acknowledged that he held a pillow over her face for two or three minutes and tried to make her "pass out" so she could not identify him. Jackson stated that, when Mrs. Phillips stopped screaming, that was his "cue that she [had] passed out." He also admitted that he inserted his penis into her vagina while he was holding the pillow over her face.
Continuing, Jackson stated that he took Mrs. Phillips' automobile when he left her apartment and drove it to another apartment complex, where he abandoned the vehicle with the keys lying on top of it. He also used $60 that he had taken from her purse to purchase marijuana. Throughout the interview, Jackson denied that anyone else was with him during this incident and insisted that he did not mean to kill Mrs. Phillips.
At trial, Jackson testified to a different version of the events that supposedly transpired at Mrs. Phillips' apartment. The defendant claimed that, on the day in question, he had been playing basketball until around midnight at the apartment complex where Mrs. Phillips lived. Jackson stated that, as he was leaving, he came in contact with Alex Meekins and Jasper Meekins. Jackson decided to participate in their plan to break into Mrs. Phillips' apartment. According to Jackson, Alex entered the apartment through a window and then let Jasper and the defendant in through the front door. While Jackson was looking through Mrs. Phillips' purse, she woke up and asked what was going on. Jackson testified that the following events then took place in Mrs. Phillips' bedroom:
Jasper Meekins, he put the pillow over her face and smothered her. While he was smothering her, I think she was struggling, but I told him at the end when I heard some sound, she was gurgling, I told him to stop. I pushed him off. As we were leaving, I pulled her nightgown down. I put the blanket over her, and I picked the pillow up initially and I didn't like what I saw, so I put the pillow back.
Jackson explained that he confessed to Peterson because he thought that was what Peterson wanted to hear, and because he just wanted to "get out of there as fast as [he] could." Jackson also explained that he never told the investigators about Jasper's and Alex's participation in the crime because he was "scared for [his] family on the streets" and had concerns about being a "snitch." At trial, Jackson denied raping or killing Mrs. Phillips. He also denied having any knowledge about who raped Mrs. Phillips or about how his pubic hairs got on her body.
Two footnotes from that decision are also pertinent to this post.

Footnote 2:  Jackson also testified at a hearing on a motion to suppress his confession. His testimony at that hearing also differed from his statement to the police.

Footnote 3: A mitochondrial DNA analysis of blood taken from Alex Meekins [the accomplice claimed by Jerry Jackson during his trial] showed that his [Meekins'] mtDNA sequence did not correspond to the mtDNA sequence of the three hairs recovered from Mrs. Phillips' body.

I find no claim that Jerry Jackson is factually innocent of the crime. Even Jackson himself admits to willfully participating in the break-in that led to the death of Ruth Phillips. The fingerprint and mitochondrial DNA match corroborate his admission / testimony that he was there. (I am skeptical of hair and fiber matching, but not mtDNA analysis of hair samples.)

Given the certainty of Jerry Jackson's commission or participation in the crime, I take no position regarding his execution. I stand mute.

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