Ieliot Jackson stood silent outside the Leighton Criminal Court Building Monday morning, staring down for a minute at the thin sheet of paper in his hands.
He was holding, for the first time, the certificate of innocence that had just been granted to him by Cook County Judge Leroy K. Martin Jr., affirming that police erred in 2009 when they arrested and accused him of selling heroin to an undercover officer.
The certificate allows Jackson to expunge his record and to seek financial compensation for his wrongful conviction. But it was a bittersweet victory after spending nearly eight years in prison on the drug charge.
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“It ain’t justice,” Jackson said. “The whole system failed, man.”
Jackson’s conviction stemmed from an undercover narcotics operation Chicago police conducted in the Austin neighborhood in the summer of 2009. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison, but procedural errors and claims of ineffective representation led the state to drop the charges in 2018.
In court Monday, Judge Martin said Jackson had met the burden of proof to show his innocence, but he didn’t place blame at the feet of the police.
“I don’t attribute any malfeasance to the officers involved,” Martin said. “They just got it wrong. It happens. We’re all human beings.”
An undercover police officer testified at Jackson’s trial that Jackson had solicited him for a drug deal and later sold him heroin. The officer said he knew it was Jackson because of the BMX bike he rode and his distinctive beard. But he admitted he didn’t document their initial interaction.
No physical evidence linked Jackson to the sale. At Jackson’s certificate of innocence hearing last week, police testified that while several teams of officers were involved in undercover narcotics operations, none routinely took photographs.
Isaac Williams testified at the innocence hearing that he was the one who had sold drugs to the undercover officer. He said he had a beard at the time and that he was riding a BMX bicycle. Williams had not testified at Jackson’s original trial.
Jarrett Adams, one of Jackson’s attorneys, said the certificate of innocence was a “long time coming.”
“All it takes is one accusation,” Adams said. “Why from the beginning wasn’t he given the presumption of innocence?”
Outside the courthouse, co-counsel Jeanette Samuels looked on as Jackson held the certificate in his hands. She said she wished she had never had to file the innocence petition.
“You can’t undo a decade in a piece of paper,” she said.
Alecia Richards contributed reporting