Innocent Man Spent 22 Years In Prison Because Teen Didn't Want To Tell His Dad He Bought Drugs
In March 1999, an 18-year-old guy in Louisiana bought some drugs. Like most 18-year-olds, he didn't want to tell his dad he bought drugs. Unlike most 18-year-olds, who might have said something like "I went to a concert" or "I bought some food" or something else normal, this 18-year-old claimed to have been robbed at gunpoint while riding his bike home from work. To add to the story, he threw his St. Christopher medal away and claimed the robber also stole his St. Christopher medal. Which he wore, we can assume, because he was very holy.
His dad reported the robbery to the police, and the son went along with it. Not only did he go along with it, but he went through a photo lineup, picked a random Black guy, and said, "That's him, that's the guy who robbed me."
The man he picked out was Jermaine Hudson — who, though he had pleaded guilty to armed robbery once, at the age of 16, had grown up and was working at a supermarket to provide for his 10-month- and 2-week-old daughters.
Hudson just got out of prison last weekend, because it took the other guy 22 years to come forward and say that he made the whole thing up. But, you know, he felt really bad about it.
The day before his trial in March 2000, Hudson says, a prosecutor offered him a plea deal for a 5-year sentence. "I ain't about to take no time for something I didn't do," Hudson recalls saying.
At trial, the accuser broke down crying. To Hudson, it was the sight of a man anguished about making a false accusation. Jurors saw it another way: they voted 10-2 to convict.
The judge in the case then sentenced Hudson to 99 years in prison, a sentence that actually would have been ridiculous even if he had robbed this kid and stolen his St. Christopher medal.
Now, if you live somewhere other than Louisiana or Oregon (or even if you do live in one of those places) you may be looking at that jury verdict and going "But that's not how a jury works?" But it is, unfortunately, how juries worked in both of those states for a very long time. Louisiana had them until 2018, when they were scrapped after citizens voted to get rid of them, and Oregon had them until 2020, when even our very conservative Supreme Court determined that they were obviously bad. And obviously racist.
Non-unanimous juries were for years considered "the last remaining Jim Crow laws." Louisiana's came as part of a larger response to the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, which abolished slavery and guaranteed certain rights for Black people. In 1898, they held a convention to put new laws into place in order to counteract the amendments.
E.B. Kruttschnitt, president of that convention, literally said:
I say to you, that we can appeal to the conscience of the nation, both judicial and legislative and I don't believe that they will take the responsibility of striking down the system which we have reared in order to protect the purity of the ballot box and to perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana.
Can't get more clear than that. The non-unanimous jury was born out of a fear of one Black person on a jury being able to overturn the will of 11 white people. And it worked! Because even in this day and age, 80 percent of those still in prison on non-unanimous jury convictions are Black.
Oregon's law, passed in 1934, just seven years after Oregon's laws excluding Black people from settling there were repealed, was also obviously racist. Surprisingly, however, theirs was not just racist, but also anti-Semitic — as it was passed after Jake Silverman, a Jewish murder suspect, avoided a conviction on a vote of 11-1. The Morning Oregonian newspaper, which had previously complained of "mixed blood" jurors, responded to this with an editorial reading:
This newspaper's opinion is that the increased urbanization of American life ... and the vast immigration into America from southern and eastern Europe, of people untrained in the jury system, have combined to make the jury of twelve increasingly unwieldy and unsatisfactory.
Right now, a case is headed to the Supreme Court that could determine whether the illegality of non-unanimous juries could be retroactive. If it is found that those verdicts must be revisited, more than 1000 prisoners in Louisiana alone could get new trials. Many in New Orleans, including Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams, are pushing to overturn these verdicts now. Hudson's, coincidentally, was one of the verdicts Williams wanted to vacate immediately.
While the Supreme Court's 2020 decision on split verdicts for now applies only to cases with pending appeals, Williams, who took office Jan. 11, has decided to apply it to older cases like Hudson's.
Hudson's case was one of a crop of 22 in which prosecutors moved to vacate. On that date, he agreed to plead guilty to robbery and receive a sentence of time served at a hearing set for Wednesday before Judge Nandi Campbell.
Then something happened that his attorney, Jamila Johnson of the Promise of Justice Initiative, calls one of "the miracles of the universe." On Thursday, the original accuser came forward.
The accuser, who reportedly still has a drug problem and said he knew nothing about Hudson's current situation before coming forward. He also said he felt more comfortable coming forward with Williams in office than with his predecessor Leon Cannizzaro, who was suspicious of recanting victims and witnesses and frequently not only disbelieved them but charged them with perjury. That would be a far more sympathetic excuse, however, if the accuser had not in fact committed perjury and let someone stay in prison for 22 years without ever coming forward, because he was scared of getting in trouble with his dad.
Louisiana law says recantations should be treated with "utmost suspicion," in part due to the danger that a defendant's acquaintances will pressure witnesses. Cannizzaro fought to uphold convictions even after witnesses recanted, and he prosecuted several of them for perjury.
However, Hudson's case was different in that he was already getting out of prison. Hudson says he was fully prepared to plead guilty, simply so he could get out. He and his lawyer say no one in his camp approached the accuser.
Williams' office agreed to provide the recanting accuser with immunity and moved to put the affidavit on the court record the next day.
Twenty-two years. Jermaine Hudson was in prison for 22 years for a crime he didn't commit — missing out on life, on spending time with family members who have since died, on watching his children grow up, living through the abject horrors of our American prison system — because some chooch didn't want to tell Daddy he bought some drugs and because of a Jim Crow law literally put in place to uphold white supremacy. There are no words.
Jermaine Hudson, for his part, is clearly a better person than I am, saying that he forgives his accuser and is just glad that it's finally over.
"I am thanking the Lord and him for coming forward. I forgive him. It has been 22 years but I forgive him with a pure heart. He took 22 years from me but I'm still young and have a life ahead of me."
"Mr. Hudson's case illustrates the systemic problems with the accuracy of cases decided by non-unanimous juries," said Jamila Johnson, managing attorney for PJI's Jim Crow Juries Project, which represented Hudson in his case. "We knew when we started looking into these cases that these kinds of injustices would be revealed. Those two jurors knew there was something wrong with the story being told. By silencing their voices, Mr. Hudson spent 21 years in prison on a 99-year sentence. We need to re-examine all non-unanimous jury cases across the Louisiana."
Yes, that does seem like a good idea.
Hudson has started a GoFundMe in order to help him get on his feet, should you care to check that out.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse