Editor’s Note: Noura Jackson’s horrific story is told in Emily Bazelon’s ground-breaking and prize-winning book Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration (2019).


“Justice hasn’t been served yet”: An Interview with Noura Jackson

In 2005, 18-year-old Noura Jackson was wrongly convicted of stabbing her mother to death, despite the fact that no physical evidence linked her to the crime scene and instead indicated two to three unidentified perpetrators. In 2014, her conviction was vacated, but Jackson remained in prison while the district attorney considered trying her again. Eventually, the district attorney offered Jackson the controversial Alford plea, which allowed her to assert her innocence while conceding that there was enough evidence to reconvict her. Jackson accepted, and was finally freed in 2016.

Amanda Knox 

Do you mind telling me a very brief synopsis of your wrongful conviction?

Noura Jackson 

In 2005, my mother was killed in what I can assume was a home invasion. Four months later, I was arrested. I was held pre trial for three and a half years, went to trial, and had what you call a “compromised verdict.” I was originally charged with first degree murder. I think the jury was ready to go home after being sequestered for 13 days, and they brought down a conviction of second degree murder. I was sentenced to 20 years and nine months. I went to prison in 2009. In 2014, the Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously overturned my verdict. After five months in the county jail, I ended up taking an Alford plea. I was told that I would walk out that day. You of all people can imagine, when you’re sitting there and you think you might not ever go home, and then being told you can walk out the next day, it’s pretty heavy. I was just tired and I realized I wasn’t going to get a fair shake in Shelby County, and so my lawyers convinced me that would be a good idea and I would walk out the next day. And it turns out, I went back to prison for 15 months. After 15 months, I experated my sentence, I have been home ever since.

Amanda Knox 

There’s so much that’s upsetting about what happened to you. One of them is the fact that the day your mom was murdered was the day that you were orphaned.

Noura Jackson 

That’s what made it so hard. This wasn’t some random person. This was my mother. My world ended twice. The day she died and the day that I was arrested. Sometimes I wonder if I would even be alive, just because, honestly, I was orphaned. My dad was killed a year and a half before her in a convenience store robbery gone bad. And at first the cops thought that they might be related, but then they arrested me, and just from day one, it wasn’t fair. They had tunnel vision for me and if the facts didn’t fit the narrative that they were trying to spin, then they were completely discarded or hidden.

Amanda Knox  

And it all revolved around vilifying you.

Noura Jackson 

Oh my gosh, slut shaming. It was character assassination for 13 days. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation officer said that there was no physical evidence tying me to the scene of the crime. 

Amanda Knox   

So you were offered an Alford plea. You weren’t offered exoneration. What was going on there? 

Noura Jackson 

I never thought that they would give me an Alford plea, and that’s the only way I would have even accepted a plea. And up until the day I walked into the courtroom, I really didn’t know what I was pleading to, because I knew absolutely nothing about the criminal justice system until this happened to me. The prosecution didn’t want to give me anything that looked like time served.

Amanda Knox 

It sounds like the special prosecutor wanted to get you to take a guilty plea, and you refused. And so ultimately, after negotiations, what came onto the table was an Alford plea.

Noura Jackson  

Correct. They came back with that. It was just this thing that was dragging out and they were playing games from the very beginning. It was all about getting me to take a plea. They were like, “Look, even if you win this, we’ll hold her in an interlocutory appeal, and she will have done her whole entire sentence by the time this ever goes to trial, so it’s in her best interest to take a plea.”

Amanda Knox   

They were just flexing on you.

Noura Jackson   

Big time. Big time.

Amanda Knox  

So you spent nine years in prison before your conviction was vacated. And then you spent another 15 months?

Noura Jackson  

Right. So in total I did 11 years. 11 years. All of my 20s.

Amanda Knox  

That’s a long time.

Noura Jackson 

It’s a long time, and what made my time so hard was, like you said, I was an orphan, and the only person I trusted was gone. And not only were they gone, but I was accused of killing them. That was something, to this day, I don’t think I fully wrapped my head around.

Amanda Knox

In the prison environment, how did you stay sane and healthy?

Noura Jackson  

I don’t know if I was always sane and healthy, to be quite honest. I think I lost my mind a few times in there. But, you know, I’m a fighter. The fight kept me going. Because I knew not only did I have to prove my innocence, but the person that did this was getting away with it. So it was about vindication for my mother and for myself. That’s what kept me going. 

Amanda Knox 

How do you feel about that, knowing that law enforcement has basically shelved your case and called it quits?

Noura Jackson  

Honestly, I was hitting rock bottom right when I got the call from the Innocence Project, saying that they would like to represent me and take my case. I was drowning, treading water down south. Convicted felon, high profile case, working these terrible jobs. As soon as someone finds out you’re a felon, they take advantage of it, and give you crap pay. They overwork you. It was terrible, honestly. And then when I got that call, I just felt like I had another chance. I was up to bat again and we could find who did this and I could prove my innocence. And so right now I am currently being represented by the Innocence Project.

Amanda Knox

It sounds like you weren’t really allowed to rebuild your life.

Noura Jackson 

I don’t feel like I really started rebuilding my life until two and a half years ago.

Amanda Knox 

What was the difference?

Noura Jackson 

I went on this podcast called Wrongful Conviction, which you’re familiar with. And I got adopted. I moved to New York. I started school. It’s like, I have a family. I just have a purpose. I have people looking out for my best interest and that makes all the difference in the world. 

Amanda Knox  

Many people believe that an Alford plea is this weird, cruel thing. I mean, it’s not cruel in the sense that it saves people’s lives. It saved Damien Echols’ life, and allowed you to get out of prison, but —

Noura Jackson 

It’s purgatory. It holds you hostage. 

Amanda Knox  

Exactly. And after your faith in the criminal justice system has been totally wrecked from having been wrongly convicted, it’s totally understandable how you would take a plea, because any kind of relief from this existential crisis is a lifeline. And prosecutors know that. They offer you not the thing that you deserve, they offer you purgatory. And I wonder if there’s any hope to aspire to free oneself from purgatory and it sounds like you are pursuing that hope.

Noura Jackson  

Correct. And it’s like baking a cake. It’s just about having the right amount of hope. Too much sets you up for failure. Too little doesn’t keep you getting out of bed in the morning. We are trying to petition the courts to get the DNA so we can run it through the database. It could get a hit. I would love to find out who did this and stop them dead in their tracks. 

Amanda Knox 

Are you thinking at all about prison these days? 

Noura Jackson  

Oh, gosh, you can’t go through something like that and not think about it. It walks with me. And even more so now in the time of COVID. I’ve heard so many celebrities compare the coronavirus to being incarcerated and I’m like, “You just have no idea.” In this world of easy access, everything delivered to your door, cell phones, streaming services, food, loved ones, it’s just totally not the same thing. But I’m thinking of prison. I still have friends that I communicate with in there. The conditions in there are terrible. And a lot of times the only thing that keeps you going was visitation. Sundays were the day that I recharged my batteries when I was in there. I was reminded that I was humanized, and that there are people out there that loved and cared about me and that supported me. And so when the gate would roll and after strip search, I could go back and face another week. With corona going on, they’ve taken visitation. They’re short-staffed. They’re locked down more than ever. They’re scared. They don’t have the information like we do, and it’s always changing. It’s scary for us out here, because not knowing is the hardest part. 

Amanda Knox   

How are you surviving quarantine? I know you have a new puppy, which is so exciting.

Noura Jackson 

I do. I’m so lucky. I got her one week before they shut down all non-essential travel. She was a birthday present. And honestly, I feel like quarantine has been so much easier for me because of her. I never knew how much I needed a dog until I had one.

Amanda Knox  

Fur babies are a huge part of my life as well. You know, I don’t go to therapy. 

Noura Jackson 

Nor do I. Oh my gosh, soul twins.

Amanda Knox

Yeah, fur baby love is my therapy, along with my family and my husband. But I can’t imagine a better friend to get through this time then a fur baby. Can you tell me how you named your fur baby? And what inspired the name?

Noura Jackson 

Her name is Liberty. I knew that she was going to free me from a lot of things. You mentioned not going to therapy. That’s been a big point of contention with the people that I love, because they’re big pushers of therapy. And I don’t know. Therapy is just kind of like a hard pill for me to swallow, I guess. The idea of reliving all these horrible things to a complete stranger is just not my idea of healthy or a good time. Liberty is my therapist. I thought about Justice, Justice Jackson, but justice hasn’t been served yet. So maybe that will be down the road.