Selling methamphetamine to take care of family made for fantastic drama on the television show “Breaking Bad,” but in the real world it landed Dicky Joe Jackson a lifetime sentence in jail.
According to Salon’s profile of the man, Jackson is one of 3,278 men and women in the United States serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent crimes. Though he acknowledged that transporting meth was wrong, he said he was driven by the fact that he would do anything he could to save the life of his son, Cole.
“I know that what I did was not right or legal, even in a life and death situation, as ours was … but in my 42 years of life, I have never harmed a soul,” he said to Salon. “There are people in here doing less than me for contract killings and child molestation.”
In 1989, while Jackson was serving a year in prison for transporting a kilogram of marijuana, 2-year-old Cole was diagnosed with Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, a rare and deadly disease that requires a lifetime of chemotherapy and treatment. The family had lost their insurance coverage at the time, leaving it with an important decision to make: somehow scrounge up $250,000 for a life-saving bone marrow transplant, or place Cole in hospice care as he slowly traveled down a path towards death.
At first, the Jacksons sold off all of their possessions, asked for donations from family, friends, and even celebrities, and reapplied to the National Children’s Cancer Society. Yet the family was still $150,000 short of the money needed just for the surgery, never mind the subsequent treatment.
That’s when a local meth dealer asked Jackson, a livestock transporter, to move the drug for him on his way from California to Texas for $5,000 a trip. Jackson transported the meth once a month for a year until he was arrested in 1995 for selling half a pound of meth to an undercover police officer.
“I was desperate,” Jackson told Salon. “I had to get the money. Before I had kids, I’d never known there was a love like that. Once you have kids the whole game changes. There ain’t nothing you wouldn’t do for them especially if they’re sick.
“When Cole was younger, it looked like we just beat him all the time, because he would bruise all over if you just squeezed him or picked him up. You’d barely touch him and he’d bruise and that would just break your heart … It made a crazy person out of me.”
Prosecutors gave Jackson the option of testifying against his co-defendants for a lesser sentence, but he declined, saying he’d pay for his mistakes himself. The presiding judge, John McBryde, found Jackson guilty of conspiring to possess or possessing with the intent to distribute nearly 82 kilograms of meth, more than 350 times the amount he was actually found holding. Jackson was sentenced to three life sentences as well as three 10-year charges.
According to Salon, McBryde had been accused of abusing his power to level harsh sentences before. He was reprimanded later in 1995 and prohibited from hearing any cases for a year.
Meanwhile, the lead prosecutor on the case, Michael Snipes, eventually became a judge himself in Dallas, Texas’ Criminal District Court, and wrote a letter requesting clemency for Jackson.
“I saw no indication that Mr. Jackson was violent, that he was any sort of large scale narcotics trafficker, or that he committed his crimes for any reason other than to get money to care for his gravely ill child,” he wrote.
At this point, however, Jackson has little room to maneuver. The plea for clemency was denied, he can no longer appeal his case, and parole is not an option. His last hope rests with the American Civil Liberties Union, which recently began a campaign opposing life sentences without parole for nonviolent offenses, including a petition to President Barack Obama requesting a review of cases where individuals were sentenced without parole.
"I’m really worked up about it,” Jackson said, referring to the ACLU campaign. “I’m excited about it. Because that’s what it takes to change things, for people to become aware.”