By Anat Rubin
Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment of a three-part series.
The last case
That might have been the end of the story but for an unusual confluence of events that landed a former federal law clerk with an extraordinary resumé in a prison bunk bed next to the last inmate still fighting the 5th Circuit’s sham denials.
On January 2, 2019, Haller Jackson IV walked into Angola to serve out the remainder of a sentence for soliciting sex from a minor. He was 37 years old, 6-foot-4 and weighed 200 pounds, but he carried himself like a man who was doing his best to appear smaller. His right eye was blood red, a reminder of a beating he’d received a few weeks earlier at another prison.
Jackson had begun his sentence in Angola four years earlier. When his legal advocacy on behalf of fellow inmates called attention to, among other things, the prison’s inadequate health care, he was transferred to Dixon Correctional Institute, some 35 miles away. After he was assaulted, Jackson said, his lawyer secured his return to Angola, as long as he promised to refrain from embarrassing the authorities.
Jackson was relieved to be able to resume his work as an inmate lawyer. He had a year and a half left on his sentence, and he wanted to make the most of it. As a registered sex offender, he likely would never be allowed to practice law. While he settled in that first day, a man in the adjacent bunk bed introduced himself. His name was Louie M. Schexnayder Jr., but in Angola everybody called him Schex.
Schexnayder was convicted of murder in 1995. He’d petitioned the 5th Circuit 11 times during the period of Peterson’s blanket denials, raising questions about the competency of his defense attorney and the testimony of a witness who later recanted. After the judges at the 5th Circuit affirmed Peterson’s rulings, Schexnayder hired a lawyer to help him petition the federal courts.
Standing in Schexnayder’s way – and in the way of all the 5th Circuit petitioners who tried to take their cases to federal court – was the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, a federal law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, at the height of his efforts to portray himself as a tough-on-crime Democrat. The law, known by its unwieldy initials as AEDPA, has made it all but impossible for federal judges to overturn criminal rulings by state courts.
AEDPA was supposed to help deter domestic terrorism and expedite delays in carrying out capital punishment, but it did neither. The time between sentencing and execution is almost twice as long today as it was 27 years ago, and by most measures domestic terrorism has increased. But the law has significantly undermined habeas corpus, the constitutional safeguard that gives prisoners the right to challenge their incarceration.
One of the act’s toughest restrictions, and the one keeping the Louisiana prisoners from taking their cases to federal court, requires federal judges to defer to state court rulings in all but the narrowest of circumstances. Federal judges can’t step in just because a state court proceeding or ruling violated a prisoner’s rights. They can reverse the state ruling only if it was so wrong that not a single “reasonable jurist” would agree with it. Before AEDPA, federal judges provided a critical safeguard. Unlike state judges, most of whom face reelection and can be loath to reverse convictions for fear of appearing “soft on crime,” they are appointed for life and are theoretically free from political pressure.
Since AEDPA was enacted, state convictions based on the fabricated testimony of jailhouse informants or obtained by prosecutors suppressing or falsifying evidence are routinely upheld. Even in cases in which trial judges adopted the prosecution’s brief as their ruling, typos and all, federal judges have declined to step in. Those who do have been repeatedly slapped down by the Supreme Court in opinions that further narrowed the grounds for federal review. If the better-known 1994 crime bill was intended to lock more people up, AEDPA effectively threw away the key.
While some federal judges have tried to push back against AEDPA’s restrictions, those in Louisiana have applied them with zeal. In case after case, Louisiana’s federal courts have signaled to state court judges that virtually no violation of a prisoner’s constitutional rights is so egregious as to warrant review. Dufresne’s prose scheme was no exception. When Schexnayder asked a federal district court for a new hearing in light of Peterson’s revelations, the judge cited AEDPA in denying his request, and the federal appellate court affirmed. But on that day in January 2019, when Jackson climbed into the top bunk in the prison dormitory he shared with 85 other men, Schexnayder thought finally he might get the help he needed.
Angola has produced some formidable jailhouse lawyers, but Jackson was unlike any of them. The son of a prominent family in Shreveport, he had studied law at Tulane, graduating first in his class with the highest grade-point average in the school’s history. While also pursuing a doctorate in epidemiology, he served as editor-in-chief of the law review and shattered the school’s record for the number of awards and honors earned by an individual student.
The lives of most Angola prisoners were marked by extreme poverty; Jackson had grown up in extraordinary privilege. If he hadn’t been gay, he believes he might have been a frat boy, practicing at the family law firm and going to the Shreveport Club for dinner, just as generations of Haller Jacksons before him had done. Instead, he distanced himself from that lineage. After graduating from law school, he landed several prestigious federal clerkships and focused his efforts on prisoner rights and habeas cases.
But it all came crashing down in 2014, when he was arrested in New Orleans after arranging online with an undercover agent to pay for sex with a 10-year-old boy. By his own account, he had become addicted to alcohol and dependent on methamphetamines. It was a spectacular downfall, and it made headlines in legal publications.
Jackson pleaded guilty and asked to be sent to Angola. This was an unusual request. The prison still evokes fear and is generally reserved for people sentenced to more than 40 years. His lawyers were against it, but he insisted. “It’s my drag queen approach to life,” he said. “If you’re going to send me to prison, well, send me to Angola.”
It was also a way for Jackson to derive meaning from the wreckage. Angola is where Louisiana’s injustices intersect most dramatically, and Jackson knew his rare expertise in post-conviction law would be valuable. He had always understood that pro se petitioners got short shrift, but in Angola he was shocked to see how many of the prisoners’ claims had merit and how few managed to receive any attention from the courts.
Shortly after he arrived, Jackson met an inmate convicted of stealing a carpenter’s level. He had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under the state’s repeat offender law; his previous crimes included stealing a pack of cigarettes and a lighter and writing two bad checks to Home Depot. The man, Jackson wrote in a petition arguing the sentence was illegal, will die in prison over a “tool with a little bubble in it, worth less than $10.”
It was denied. Jackson petitioned the court on behalf of a man who had found evidence of his innocence in a police report the prosecutor had withheld at trial. His request for a new hearing was rejected. As was a filing on behalf of a severely disabled man who was still in prison months after he should have been released, and another for a man who claimed he had lost his vision because of the prison’s neglect.
Almost all of Jackson’s filings speak not just to the particulars of a specific case but to the devastation wrought by the entire Louisiana criminal justice apparatus. The state has more people serving life without parole than Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi combined.
In a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court for a man serving a life sentence for possession of cocaine, Jackson protested “this destruction of another black family – perhaps a tiny tragedy in the civil rights Chernobyl that has been Louisiana’s war on drugs.” There was no evidence linking the man to the ounce of cocaine found at a relative’s home, he wrote.
“And yet here he sits still, sentenced to life without parole on the banks of the Mississippi,” he continued. “As seen from the heavens, the scene on these banks has changed little since 1820.” The petition was denied.
By the time Jackson met Schexnayder, his writing had progressed “from disappointed but fundamentally-confident-in-justice liberal to just this side of burn-the-house-down nutter,” he told me. The indignation he felt over the 5th Circuit’s pro se cases was not because of the court’s obvious indifference to the inmates; this he had come to expect.
“It’s that the judges got caught saying they don’t care,” he said. “The poor already knew this and have known it viscerally all their lives – from the way every arm of the state has ever treated them.” But here was a case in which they had irrefutable proof, and still there was no outrage on their behalf. “It was crickets,” he said. “They got caught so, so red-handed, and the response of all the other courts has been a collective shrug.”
Schexnayder, who had a criminal record so long that he would almost certainly have landed in prison for life much sooner had he been Black, could hardly be seen as the face of Louisiana’s criminal justice failures. But of all the 5th Circuit petitioners, Schexnayder was the one who had somehow managed to keep his case alive. Jackson knew that a victory for him could open the door for the others. He began working on a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the 5th Circuit’s reconsideration of Peterson’s denials did little more than allow the judges to “whitewash the scandal.”
“Why would the Louisiana 5th Circuit think it could get away with such appalling misconduct?” Jackson wrote. “To this there is an easy, if disturbing, answer: Because it has. And now, the lower federal courts are deferring to that court’s decisions in the affected cases, many involving a sentence to life without parole.”
Jackson realized the case was unlikely to get any attention unless he could line up some outside help. AEDPA had been a particular target of one of his mentors, Alex Kozinski, a federal judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for whom Jackson had clerked. Frequently mentioned as a candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court, Kozinski had been one of the country’s most prominent judges, a Reagan appointee known for his cutting and iconoclastic opinions. In a 2015 law review article, he wrote that AEDPA was “a cruel, unjust and unnecessary law that effectively removes federal judges as safeguards against miscarriages of justice.” He called for its repeal.
But like Jackson’s, Kozinski’s career had come to an abrupt end. In 2017, amid multiple accusations of sexual harassment, he left the bench. Within the legal world, especially around issues of criminal justice, however, his opinion still commanded respect, even among some of his accusers. Jackson knew that his involvement could draw attention to Schexnayder’s petition.
He called the former judge at his home in California. Kozinski thought the 5th Circuit’s conduct – and the federal courts’ unwillingness to wade into it – might provide a valuable test for AEDPA. The law requires deference to the work of state court judges, but what if those judges hadn’t done the work? Kozinski asked the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to submit a brief in support of Schexnayder’s petition and recruited another former clerk to write it.
In April 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the state of Louisiana to submit a response to Schexnayder’s claims, signaling that someone on the court was interested in considering the case. The justices were initially scheduled to vote in April on whether to grant a full hearing, but they postponed that decision nine times over the next eight months. The delays gave Jackson hope. Maybe one of the justices was working to drum up enough votes to give the case a chance or preparing a powerful dissent from the court’s refusal to hear it.
Instead, on Dec. 9, 2019, the court unanimously rejected the case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a short opinion, citing technical issues with Schexnayder’s original petition to the Louisiana federal court as her reason for agreeing with her colleagues’ decision. She ended with what seemed like an encouraging note to the prisoners, saying the 5th Circuit’s reconsideration of Peterson’s rulings brings up “serious due process concerns.”
“I expect that lower federal courts will examine the issue of what deference is due to these decisions when it is properly raised,” she wrote.
But the federal courts will not get that chance. The 454 prisoners whose denials the 5th Circuit “reconsidered” have exhausted their appeals and can no longer ask federal judges to weigh in on the 5th Circuit’s conduct. In refusing to hear Schexnayder’s case, the Supreme Court has prevented the episode from being raised in federal court again.
When Jackson found out that Schexnayder’s petition had been rejected, he struggled to articulate his reaction. After a long silence, he said, “Well, they got away with it.”
Since they petitioned the Louisiana Supreme Court, some of the 454 inmates have died in prison. Others have been released after serving their time or have had their sentences reduced as a result of recent criminal justice reforms. But at least 170, including Schexnayder, are still incarcerated. They continue to petition the appellate courts, trying to show new evidence of their innocence or to argue that their sentences should be reduced.
After the Schexnayder episode, Jackson set his sights on the modest goal of filing as many petitions as he could before his release. “I’m going to make them tell me they’re OK with all these crazy cases,” he said. When he walked out the prison gates in June 2020, he smuggled several office boxes containing case files he had secretly copied – documents he would use to help the men he was leaving behind. In the months that followed, Jackson found lawyers to represent dozens of prisoners and worked with legal nonprofits to reduce the sentences of more than 100 people. Among them are several men whose pro se petitions the 5th Circuit had ignored.
In the years that Peterson was rejecting pro se petitions, the 5th Circuit denied claims that ended in at least five exonerations. Four of these men were freed only after the New Orleans Innocence Project agreed to represent them. Nathan Brown was one of them. He had appealed to the organization early in his incarceration, and lawyers there had discovered that the victim’s dress had been preserved as evidence and could be tested for DNA.
Hurricane Katrina put a stop to everything, though, and for a long time Brown heard nothing. While he waited, the 5th Circuit reviewed Peterson’s denial and concluded that the failure of Brown’s attorney to introduce DNA evidence was “within the scope of trial strategy” and did not constitute inadequate counsel.
Then, on his 39th birthday, Brown received a letter from the national Innocence Project, saying it would take his case. Brown’s new lawyers compelled the Jefferson Parish district attorney to send the dress for DNA testing, and the analysis identified another man – a convicted felon – as the attacker. In 2014, after 16 years, 10 months and 18 days, Brown was exonerated.
It’s been nine years since Brown was released, and he’s still trying to find stable ground. He has struggled with addiction and depression. He cycles through phones. He has lost his Social Security card so many times the federal government will no longer replace it. The dreams he had for himself when he was in prison – that he would go to college, that he would help his daughter to rise above the poverty that had plagued his own childhood – have slipped so far out of his reach he can hardly allow himself to believe in them. Still, he knows how exceptional his case is.
“They have a lot of guys in prison that are filing claims,” he told me. “They’re not all saying, ‘I didn’t do this.’ They’re just saying, ‘The way you sentenced me is wrong. The crime doesn’t warrant all this time you gave me.’ But they can’t come home, because once they get you, they got you, and the courts – they’re not listening. They don’t see you.”
ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.
This article originally published in the November 27, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.