By Alecia Richards – Injustice Watch
For more than a decade, Ieliot Jackson has insisted that he’s innocent of the narcotics charge that kept him incarcerated for almost eight years.
As he twice appealed his conviction and 13-year prison sentence, Jackson repeatedly asked the court to consider the testimony of a man who says it was he—not Jackson—who actually sold heroin to an undercover Chicago Police officer in June 2009.
Now, as Jackson tries to obtain a certificate of innocence, he hopes that the testimony of Isaac Williams will finally be heard. Williams has said in a sworn affidavit that he was the man police called “BMX” who sold drugs to an undercover Chicago Police officer in June 2009.
“The testimony of Mr. Williams not only proves my innocence but it goes to show how the Chicago Police abuse their police authority,” Jackson said. “This testimony that Isaac Williams has been trying to give since 2010 could’ve been used to avoid the time I spent in prison.”
Jackson’s arrest stemmed from a narcotics operation by the Chicago Police Department in the Austin neighborhood during summer 2009. Over a period of months, police conducted controlled buys from people dealing drugs in the area and charged them with drug-related offenses.
Officer Clark Eichman, an undercover officer on the narcotics team, identified Jackson as the man he spoke to and brought drugs from in the 4800 block of West Superior Street on June 13, 2009.
Their first interaction was two weeks earlier, on May 30. Eichman testified Jackson approached him about buying drugs and asked for his contact information. Within minutes of leaving, Eichman said he received a call from an unknown number. Eichman said he recognized the voice as the person he had just spoken to and saved the number under “BMX” to remember it belonged to the man he had just met on a BMX bicycle, according to court documents.
Jackson presented a different story. He said he and a group of friends were outside on the block that day, celebrating a friend’s return from school out of town, when a group of officers, including Eichman, approached them and started asking questions about a shooting. Jackson, who says he believes Williams was among the young men in the group, says they told police they didn’t know anything about a shooting. The officers took their names and wrote so-called “contact cards” documenting the interactions, then left.
Eichman said he received a call from the number he had saved as “BMX” on June 13, and a sale was arranged. After the sale, Eichman drove away, gave his team a description of the seller, and later chose Jackson from a photo array as the man who sold him drugs that day.
Jackson was arrested on June 24, and charged with four counts of delivery of a controlled substance, stemming from four separate instances of alleged sales to undercover officers. The prosecutor opted to try Jackson on just one of the charges, stemming from the June 13 purchase Eichman claimed to have made from him. Three others, including Williams, were also charged with selling drugs to undercover officers on the same block of Superior street.
Williams is prepared to testify, as he stated in the affidavit, that he was the one who was riding a branded BMX bicycle on May 30 and who solicited a person who he knows now to be Eichman for drugs. He later sold drugs to Eichman on the morning of June 13. Williams could not immediately be reached for comment.
Jackson contends the narrative police presented in court about him soliciting customers for drug sales was fabricated. He maintains he was present on West Superior on both days, but never rode a BMX bike or talked to Eichman on the phone. As proof he points to the fact that the contact card documenting his interaction with police on May 30 doesn’t mention a BMX bike.
“How is Mr. Williams on a [BMX] bike on the 30th and Mr. Jackson as well,” asks Jarrett Adams, Jackson’s attorney.
At a July 2010 jury trial before Cook County Circuit Judge Maura Slattery Boyle, Eichman and Clark Person, the chief surveillance officer for the June 13 buy, were the only two officers from the narcotics team who testified.
Eichman testified that he knew Jackson was the person who sold him drugs on June 13 because of the BMX bike and his distinctive beard. But he admitted he did not have any documentation from the May 30 interaction, even though he had documented other interactions he had during the undercover operation.
Person also identified Jackson in court as the seller, but he had no audio, video or photos from the sale. He also did not testify to the seller having distinctive features, such as a beard.
“There was no mention of a distinctive beard at all concerning Mr. Jackson until trial,” Adams says.
No DNA evidence linked Jackson to the bag of less than one gram of heroin Eichman alleges Jackson sold to him on June 13. The State didn’t submit any evidence of phone calls between Jackson and Eichman, even though Eichman claimed they had talked several times on the phone.
Jackson’s contact card from May 30—which Eichman said he did not fill out—was not given to the defense team until the morning of the trial, Jackson says. Neither was the photo array from which Eichman picked out Jackson.
Jackson’s trial attorneys, Eleanor Roos, now a supervisor in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, and her co-counsel Peter Benesh, presented no defense at trial.
The jury found Jackson guilty of delivery of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school and Judge Slattery Boyle sentenced him to 13 years in prison.
Judge’s repeated procedural errors
In 2013, the appellate court vacated Jackson’s sentence on procedural grounds, finding that Judge Slattery Boyle failed to properly instruct the jury or admonish Jackson of his rights to self-representation prior to his post-trial motions.
They sent the case back to Slattery Boyle, who held a hearing on Jackson’s claims that his defense attorneys provided ineffective counsel.
The judge found that Jackson did receive effective representation and affirmed his sentence. She also found Jackson in contempt of court for turning his back on her in the middle of a hearing, and added six months to his sentence.
Again Jackson appealed, and again the appellate court reversed Slattery Boyle and vacated his sentence, this time remanding the case to a new judge.
Injustice Watch reported last year that the appellate court reversed cases from Slattery Boyle’s courtroom far more often than the cases of other Cook County criminal court judges, and that she was among the harshest in issuing sentences.
Ineffective assistance of counsel
In September 2018, Cook County Circuit Judge William H. Hooks presided over a new hearing on Jackson’s claim of ineffective representation.
Roos and Benesh both testified that they believed they put up a good defense for Jackson’s case, though Roos said she couldn’t locate her records from the case.
During the hearing, Benesh testified that he didn’t recall reviewing a police report, investigating the State’s case, or any of the motions filed. Jackson contended that he didn’t converse with Benesh about the case until the morning of the trial.
Roos testified she couldn’t recall filing any motions, discussing a trial strategy with Jackson, or any conversations she had with Jackson while representing him. Jackson said Roos couldn’t recall any conversations about trial strategy because they never had any. Roos could be reached for comment and calls to the Cook County Public Defender’s office were not returned.
Jackson said that the morning of the trial, after being given the contact card and photo array, he asked Roos to file a continue in light of the delay in getting that evidence. Roos said in the hearing that she would’ve remembered not being prepared for trial and did not recall this happening.
Roos also said she didn’t recall a contact card and could only remember some items in discovery vaguely. In fact, she testified that she didn’t remember a contact card being in discovery for the case. Roos said she didn’t remember Officer Eichman’s testimony either.
Judge Hooks was clearly dismayed at Roos’s lack of memory or preparation for the hearing.
“The Court was a bit surprised about Attorney Roos’s testimony today having been a supervising — now a supervising public defender in the office of Cook County Public Defender who, in preparation for the type of hearing we had today, had not taken the time or had the ability to locate notes to recall key pieces of information related to her representation some years back,” he said in rendering his decision.
“When Ms. Roos can’t testify as to whether or not she even paid a visit to defendant while he was incarcerated or really give me any idea of what her total understanding of the matter was, it leaves me without a lot to grab on to concerning competence and her level of representation,” Judge Hooks added.
He found that Roos had not provided Jackson with effective counsel.
The State decided not to retry Jackson and instead dropped the charges.
In 2019, Jackson filed a petition for a certificate of innocence, raising issues with the evidence in the case.
“Without the officers’ identification, the State had no evidence with which to convict Mr. Jackson — the State did not present any DNA or fingerprint evidence, any telephone records or voice recognition evidence or any independent evidence that would corroborate the officers’ account of events and connect Mr. Jackson with the sale of heroin on June 13, 2009,” the petition states.
But the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office is contesting Jackson’s certificate of innocence. In a court filing, the State explained that they dropped the charges against Jackson not because they believe he was innocent but in the interest of saving judicial resources.
“The word ‘innocence’, as used in the statute and in its common understanding, does not mean that a person escaped re-prosecution after winning a reversal of a conviction,” Assistant State’s Attorney Julie Nikolaevskaya wrote.
Jackson believes the pushback against his petition from the State’s Attorney’s Office—despite the allegations of police misconduct, Brady v. Maryland violations, and Williams’ affidavit that he was the true seller of the drugs—is a “perversion of justice.”
“These departments are so crooked. They know that the uneducated, the unrepresented, are voiceless. You can do anything to them,” says Jackson, who is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social justice and paralegal studies. “So I just happened to be one of the individuals that you could do anything to … I’m a small piece of a bigger story.”
A status hearing for the case is currently scheduled for October.