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Justice ‘finally’ served for abused wife who killed husband

Peggy Jo Jacksher service dog she helped trawhile prisas part Helping Paws program.  Jackswas granted clemency Friday March 29

Peggy Jo Jackson and her service dog she helped train while in prison as part of the Helping Paws program. Jackson was granted clemency on Friday, March 29, 2013 for the 1986 murder of her abusive husband. | Illinois Clemency Project for Battered Women

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Updated: May 30, 2013 5:27PM

Peggy Jo Jackson’s murder trial and conviction has haunted her attorney for more than a quarter century.

Her public defender at the time, Michael D. McHaney, now a judge, believed Jackson didn’t get justice when a jury found her guilty of murdering her husband in a Downstate courtroom in Jefferson County.

“There is not a month that goes by when I do not think about the miscarriage of justice that occurred in this case,” McHaney wrote in an affidavit, as he worked to get Jackson her freedom.

The jury did not learn the extent of the abuse she suffered from her husband, who had beaten, choked and raped her routinely over 12 years.

Her brother actually committed the murder, but Jackson was convicted because she left the front door open, and he came in and attacked her husband.

And McHaney makes no bones that more than two decades ago, he was an inexperienced attorney who had no business representing her at trial.

Back then, she didn’t get justice, McHaney believes.

On Friday, after more than a quarter century of remorse, McHaney finally got some relief when his former client got something even better.

Jackson received her freedom.

In an unusual move, Gov. Pat Quinn granted Jackson clemency, freeing her from prison. Jackson, now 57, was headed to South Carolina to reunite with family.

“There are always cases you’ll never forget. There are always cases that will haunt you. There are always cases that you realize you should have done different or done something better,” McHaney said Friday. “This, for me, has always been this case.”

McHaney called the clemency “very rare” and one that sends a message.

“I hope this can help other lawyers realize that it’s never too late to do the right thing,” he said.

At her 1986 trial, Jackson sat depressed, confused and drugged out on anxiety medication.

“Ms. Jackson was a basket case. She did not know where she was. She appeared to be in complete shock,” McHaney wrote in an affidavit last year.

She was put on trial with her brother, who came in, beat her husband with a bat, shot him and pushed into a station wagon before setting it on fire, killing him.

The night before the murder, Jackson, a mother of four, was dragged into a bedroom and raped violently by her husband. He told her he would kill her if she stepped out of the bed that night, and her husband showed her a loaded gun he had stashed, according to Jackson’s clemency petition.

Her brother, convicted at trial, died in prison in 2006. On Friday, Jackson stepped out of the Logan Correctional Center a free woman, ready to live the rest of her life with her mother and sister.

“It’s a great day, despite the many years of being locked up,” attorney Margaret Byrne, director of the Illinois Clemency Project for Battered Women, said. “To get out at this time, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Jackson spent more time in prison than any of the 13 others Byrne’s project has helped earn clemency.

Byrne said she felt Jackson’s clemency petition was strong but called the governor’s decision “brave.”

“We were hopeful about it. Many times I would tell Jo, ‘Do not pack your toothbrush,’ ” Byrne said. “I didn’t want her to get too hopeful because every day can be a disappointment in prison. But when I talked to her today, she said she was packing her toothbrush.”

Jackson spent her last hours in prison saying goodbye to fellow inmates. She plans to train service dogs for war veterans, something she picked up while working for the prison’s Helping Paws program, her lawyer, Rachel White-Domain, said.

Byrne spoke to Jackson just after her release: “She says she just wants to ‘sit on the couch and hug my mom ’til there’s no tomorrow.’ ”

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