Sometimes justice really is blind.
Ask Phillip Jackson. He was convicted nearly three decades ago of starting the fire that destroyed the Haines school.
Jackson served more than four years behind bars for a crime he says he did not commit - a conviction based largely on circumstantial evidence. In recent interviews, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the judge of Jackson's 1973 court case said that's not uncommon in the American justice system.
The question of Jackson's innocence came to light last month when former classmate Bill Hagen admitted to Jackson that he set the fire. Two days later, Hagen gave a formal confession to Haines police.
Police chief Greg Goodman said that Hagen came to him Sept. 13 and claimed responsibility for the school fire of July 12, 1973. He also confessed to the unsolved arson blaze that damaged the local Presbyterian Church two months earlier.
As a member of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, Hagen told Goodman he was obliged to seek atonement for past wrongs.
He blamed heavy drinking the night of the fire for prompting his actions, and claimed that mental, physical and sexual abuse within his adoptive family fueled his anger and alcoholism as a young man.
Hagen said he set the school fire after a night of heavy drinking at the Alaskan Bar with Jackson and a female friend. The bar no longer exists, but was located on Main Street between Second and Third avenues.
Hagen told police the trio, all in their 20s, were playing pool when a fight began. They parted company, and Hagen later found Jackson passed out in the street. Still angry, Hagen told Goodman he wanted to exact revenge, so he took some of Jackson's clothing and identification. He carried the items to the school, where he said he found an open window and climbed in. He went to a shower room, where he took a shower, leaving Jackson's belongings behind.
Hagen told police his memory of the church blaze was unclear.
Jackson said his recollection ended the night of the fire when he passed out. "The last thing I remember about that night is waking up with some clothing missing and wondering what the hell happened. I was innocent and knew damn well I was. I was set up."
Losing the school hit the town hard, said longtime resident Norm Smith, who worked an eight-hour shift on the volunteer fire crew the day of the blaze. "People were running around with tears.... The school was the focal point of the community, and when the school burned down, it devastated the community."
A couple of days after the fire, Jackson said police showed up at his door and took him to the police station. "They said they found my clothes and I.D., and I asked them where they found them. They said they were in the school."
A week later, a state trooper arrested Jackson aboard the gillnet boat he was crewing on, and took him from the fishing grounds. Jackson said he was never even told the charges.
Jackson blames the conviction for taking away a promising career in commercial fishing. Jackson's limited entry gillnet permit lapsed when he was in prison because it wasn't used for three years.
"I was becoming a success, and was respected by my peers," Jackson said. "But it seemed this town had it out for me. I wasn't only convicted by the court, but also by many people in Haines."
Hagen will never go to prison for the crime. A five-year statute of limitations prevents the state from prosecuting him for arson, even if his confession is found to be valid, said assistant district attorney Susan McLean.
Jackson, however, could ask the state to clear his name.
Head of the Juneau public defender office David Seid said Jackson can seek "post-conviction relief" based on new evidence - Hagen's confession.
There isn't a time limit on filing for post-judgment relief. Courts have been asked to review cases as old as 45 years, Seid said.
Today, Jackson keeps to himself, living in a tidy apartment downtown with his two dogs, Pepper and Raven, who he keeps happy with daily walks.
Jackson said he's had to live with the shame of the conviction and being judged, even today, by some community members. He said securing a permanent job has been difficult, but winterizing homes with a local Native organization, occasional building maintenance jobs and volunteering at the Haines food bank keeps him occupied. And despite financial difficulties, Jackson said he never has accepted handouts from the food bank. "I think of all the other people who need the help more."
Jackson, now 50 years old, said he's still paying for bad choices made 30 years ago.. "Alcoholism can ruin your life and take away everything. That's what happened to me. I was in the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong people."
From Hagen and members of the community who "symbolically" convicted him, Jackson is asking only for an apology. When Hagen told him he set the fire, there was no apology, Jackson said. "He admitted it to me, and we sat for about 30 minutes talking about it, but that was it. I was really angry inside, but I didn't act on it."
Jackson said he asked Hagen why he waited 30 years. "He didn't answer me, then he left."
For Hagen and the community, Jackson said, "I want all of them to stand up with courage and realize they did me wrong. And instead of the jeers, I want people to say something nice to me for a change. People have gone far enough."
Jackson said he regrets that his foster parents, Austin and Lillian Hammond, died before they knew the truth about what happened. "After some time, they even started to believe I was guilty. They'll never know now."
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