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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 04:34 pm

She may be innocent

Battered wife seeks freedom after conviction for abusive husband’s murder

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Peggy Jo Jackson at Lincoln Correctional Center
In the early morning hours of Dec. 3, 1986, Richard Harshbarger grabbed his .38 caliber revolver and a homemade bat, climbed into his Dodge Rampage truck, and departed from his home in Pana. His younger sister, Peggy Jo Jackson, lived in the southern Illinois town of Mt. Vernon with her abusive husband, William Jackson, and Harshbarger was on a mission to “teach William a lesson.”

Accompanying Harshbarger on his trip was his sister-in-law, Debra Gatons, whom Harshbarger offered $5,000 to come along. What happened when they arrived in Mt. Vernon is disputed, but it ended with William Jackson’s corpse burnt in the family station wagon at the bottom of a ravine.

Peggy Jo had grown up in southern Illinois and married William when she was just 18. At first their marriage seemed normal, but Peggy Jo would later tell of longstanding mental, verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her husband. William installed in their home a phone line that could only receive calls instead of making them, Peggy Jo said. He forced her to work on the farm immediately after returning home from a hysterectomy. He regularly beat their children, and he raped, beat and threatened to kill Peggy Jo. The abuse intensified in the months leading up to William’s death.

The whole family was still asleep when Harshbarger and Gatons arrived at the Jackson house. Harshbarger’s story differed from Gatons’ – each claimed in court that the other person shot William while he fought with Harshbarger – but Harshbarger admitted to loading William’s body in the passenger seat of the family station wagon and driving the car into a small ravine. He said the car burst into flames when it hit the bottom of the ravine, but an investigator with the Illinois State Fire Marshall testified that the fire was likely set intentionally with gasoline.

Peggy Jo and Harshbarger were arrested and tried together for murdering William, with the prosecution alleging that Peggy Jo asked Harshbarger to kill her husband. The evidence against Peggy Jo was mostly circumstantial. A sheriff’s deputy who interviewed Peggy Jo after William’s murder testified that Peggy Jo didn’t have the demeanor of someone whose husband had just been murdered, and he felt that she didn’t look like she fled the house hurriedly in the middle of the night. The prosecution construed the unlocked front door as a step in a conspiracy between Peggy Jo and Harshbarger, her brother, to murder William, and they noted that Peggy Jo stood to benefit from a $150,000 life insurance policy when William died. The sheriff’s deputy testified that Peggy Jo originally reported a fake domestic disturbance that delayed his arrival at the scene of the burning station wagon.

Peggy Jo and Richard Harshbarger were both convicted of first degree murder and concealing a homicide, for which they each received a life sentence. While Harshbarger died in 2006, Peggy Jo Jackson remains in prison in Lincoln. But the investigators at the Illinois Innocence Project, based at the University of Illinois-Springfield, believe Peggy Jo is innocent, and they’re trying to free her.

“The state’s whole case rests on the testimony of Debra Gatons, Jackson’s sister in law, who is an unreliable, contradictory witness and had concealed the murder weapon in Pana,” says Erica Nichols Cook, a staff attorney for the Illinois Innocence Project. “I believe she’s innocent of the murder of Will Jackson because our review and investigation contradicts the state’s evidence at trial, especially in light of what we now know about victims of domestic violence.”

Peggy Jo, now 57, has served 25 years of her sentence so far. With help from the Illinois Innocence Project, Peggy Jo is trying to gain her freedom through a clemency petition submitted to Gov. Pat Quinn. Her petition and numerous accompanying letters of support from her family, her therapist, prison workers and others offer explanations for the circumstantial evidence presented against her at trial, and they detail the horrid abuse Peggy Jo endured for years.

Prior to William’s death, Peggy Jo had worked tirelessly to raise four children alone, feed them on a meager budget and keep the dilapidated house in order, according to a nephew who wrote a letter in support of her petition. The nephew saw William slam Peggy Jo against walls and threaten to kill her. Peggy Jo’s mother said in a separate letter of support that her daughter often had to go without a coat in winter and was treated more like a farmhand than a wife. The nephew stated in his letter: “[Uncle William] always took better care of his motorcycle than his family.”

Another letter of support from Peggy Jo’s therapist says she likely suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from discovering William’s blood spattered in their bedroom after the murder. After William’s death, the hospital gave Peggy Jo strong antidepressant medication, which made her appear emotionless to the sheriff’s deputy and the trial jury. She says she never asked anyone to kill her husband, and no one ever testified as such at her trial. Peggy Jo’s mother revealed in her letter of support that the unlocked front door was not an act of conspiracy to kill William: the house actually had no lock. In fact, it had many broken windows and a garden hose to bring water into the kitchen.

Even her original public defender, who is now a circuit judge in Marion County in southern Illinois, wrote a letter of support saying he botched the trial, which he said continues to “haunt me to this day.”

“By 1986, when I was assigned as an assistant public defender to represent defendant Peggy Jo Jackson, I had tried only one other murder case,” wrote Marion County circuit judge Michael McHaney. “Based on my inexperience at the time, I had no business trying this case myself.”

Peggy Jo Jackson says if she is released, she’ll move to South Carolina to be with her family and work as a service dog trainer, a skill she picked up through a training program in prison.

“Something awful happened that day and no one can ever change that,” Peggy Jo wrote in a letter to Quinn. “I wish that I could. Please let this tragedy come to an end – not just for me, but my family that’s had to live with this….”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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