Life was going well for Willard Jackson in January 1972. The basketball team he coached at Dallas’ Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior High School was undefeated. They’d won the city championship two seasons before and finished second the previous year. There was talk of an opening soon at South Oak Cliff, and he’d been told his name was at the top of the list. The 29-year-old envisioned his future: a few years successfully coaching high school and then he’d take another step to the collegiate level.
If only he hadn’t stopped in for a drink at the Sportspage bar on Inwood Road one Saturday night, that might have been. Instead, as recounted by one of the 40 greatest stories ever published in D Magazine, Jackson was arrested and charged with the rape and robbery of two women in an Oak Lawn apartment weeks earlier. In “A Case of Rape,” Jim Atkinson writes of how our justice system delivered injustice for Jackson — convicting him of a crime he didn’t commit despite what seems to be overwhelming evidence in his favor (including a solid alibi and the confession of the actual perpetrator.) It’s a heartbreaking tale, and Atkinson’s article was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.
“I was so ignorant of the system. I trusted the law, and they betrayed me,” Jackson said when I spoke to him this week about his case and his life since the story was published in our October 1977 issue.
After five years of incarceration and two trials that ended in guilty verdicts that were each reversed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Jackson was out of money and had lost faith that the system would ever recognize his innocence. But even more significant than that was his prolonged separation from his wife, Ann. Though he had misgivings, he accepted a deal through which he would plead guilty to two counts of armed robbery in exchange for a sentence of just 16 years (he’d previously faced the prospect of life in prison.)
“I didn’t want to accept something that I didn’t do,” he said of his reluctance to take the plea. But with time off for good behavior and the time he’d already served, he says he was given assurances that he’d get paroled quickly and be home in time for Christmas 1977.
Instead, because of the seriousness of his offense, his release was delayed. He didn’t get out of the state penitentiary at Huntsville until April 1980, more than two-and-a-half years after his guilty plea. By then he’d served more than eight years behind bars.
Jackson took some work in direct sales to pay down his legal debts, and he attempted to return to teaching. He was a substitute in Dallas for two years, including one long-term assignment handling an algebra and geometry teacher’s classes for most of a semester at Sunset High School. The principal wanted him for a full-time gig the following fall, but when his hiring was proposed at district headquarters the opportunity was rescinded, Jackson said, because of his criminal history.
At that point he knew his career in coaching was finished. He took a job with a mortgage broker and eventually started his own firm. He partnered with his son, Tim, who had played briefly for the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 and then spent four years in the Canadian Football League. Jackson trotted out a few certificates — like a 1997 Gold Broker Award from GE Capital Finance — to show me how successful his business had been. He even served a stint on the state’s Mortgage Industry Advisory Committee, the body that advises the Texas Department of Savings and Mortgage Lending on adopting regulations.
Unfortunately, his personal life after prison featured more difficulties than his professional life. He and Ann had a second son but split up within five years of his release. He blames the toll his prison term took on their marriage and the stress that Ann was forced to endure all those years.
“Over time, you grow different,” he said of his divorce. “I grew different. She had become an alcoholic. It made things very, very different.” They remained friends until her death from cancer in 2006. Jackson remarried, to a woman named Patricia, and they were together for 18 years until she too died of cancer, in 2007.
Today, at age 71, he lives with his third wife, Gwen, in the home he’s occupied since 1993 in a rolling, leafy patch of South Oak Cliff near Kimball High School. He retired from the mortgage business several years back but returned to work as a courier in January, he said, “because money was tight.” He’s not living the dream he lost that night in 1972 — coaching college basketball — but he’s carved out a comfortable existence for himself.
Which is not to say that he’s given up on proving his innocence. News stories in recent years about the crusade by district attorney Craig Watkins’ Conviction Integrity Unit to exonerate the wrongly convicted have rekindled Jackson’s desire to clear his own name.
In 2009, after being referred that way by someone in the district attorney’s office, Jackson wrote to the Innocence Project of Texas. According to the records of the Lubbock-based nonprofit, a questionnaire seeking details of his case was sent to Jackson. However, after receiving his responses, the organization closed its file on his case in 2011.
Jennifer Mirll, a case director and staff attorney with IPTX, explained that this step appears to have been taken because Jackson didn’t indicate the existence of any new evidence in his favor. IPTX receives about 1,000 requests for help each year, and thus (with limited resources) has to focus on the cases for which it can make the strongest arguments. That doesn’t mean the organization can’t still help Jackson if he can offer to them a new line of attack.
“We’ll revisit cases that have been closed,” Mirll said, adding that while a guilty plea can sometimes be an additional hurdle to making a case, it wouldn’t stop IPTX from investigating.
The cornerstone of the prosecution against Jackson was his identification by the victims. Though his defense attorney did a fine job in pointing to the leading nature of the photo lineup that was used by police — and despite indications in recent years that eyewitness testimony is among the least reliable forms of evidence — unless one of the two women has recanted her belief that Jackson is the man responsible, there’s nothing new to be argued there.
I asked Jackson if he’s ever tried to contact either of the women in the intervening years to appeal for their help. He hasn’t.
“I have wondered: do they realize that they made an innocent man suffer, and the fact that the person who really did this to them is not suffering?” Jackson said. (Though John Lee Lewis, the man who confessed to what Jackson was imprisoned for, was sentenced to life in prison for other violent crimes.)
The issue then becomes whether the physical evidence — namely the hairs that linked Jackson to the crime scene via neutron activation analysis — have been preserved all these years and could be used for a more reliable DNA test. Further complicating any possibility for his case to be reviewed, both IPTX and the DA’s office confirmed, would be other difficulties in accessing records. As part of Jackson’s plea deal, he said, the records of his case were sealed.
I asked if he thinks the system has changed enough to provide him the justice he was denied 40 years ago. Could the same thing happen to someone today?
“Well, today you’re not going to have an all-white jury,” said Jackson, who is black. “I believe the system is going to work for me. I believe the time hasn’t come yet.”