GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grand Rapids man who was convicted of raping and killing his infant son will have a shot at freedom.
Damon Andrew Jackson was three weeks shy of his 18th birthday when he sexually assaulted, beat and shook his 1-month-old son, David.
Jackson, now 42, is one of the so-called “juvenile lifers” whose sentences required review after the U.S. Supreme Court declared mandatory life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional.
On Feb. 1, Kent County Circuit Court Judge Paul Denenfeld ruled (PDF) that Jackson should be resentenced to a term of years instead of life without parole.
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker had fought to maintain Jackson’s life sentence.
“This (crime) goes to a level of really serious depravity that quite frankly I don’t think anyone’s ever seen,” Becker said in an interview with News 8. “I can’t think of another case where we’ve had a 1-month-old raped, sodomized, and everything else that happened to this 1-month-old child in the history of Kent County, be it juvenile or adult.”
After the Supreme Court’s ruling, Becker’s office reviewed its 24 “juvenile life” sentences and determined it would argue to preserve the life without parole determination in half of those cases, including that of Jackson.
“This is probably one of the worst crimes, if not the worst, that I can recall in my career,” said Becker.
The adoptive mother of the infant victim’s sister also wanted to see Jackson do life without parole.
“(Jackson) wasn’t 14. He wasn’t 12. He was three weeks before he turned 18. Old enough to make two children,” said Laurel Leivense.
“That child was murdered. He lived two and a half years in a vegetative state. I want this judge to know, this baby, before he died, he had seizures every day. He couldn’t handle being touched,” recalled Leivense.
In his decision to resentence Jackson to a term of years, Kent County Circuit Court Judge Paul Denenfeld first laid out the horrific details of Jackson’s crimes.
Denenfeld explained that the infant’s mother left him in Jackson’s care two times in his first weeks of life while she attended school.
“On both occasions, defendant physically abused the victim, but the abuse was not discovered,” wrote Denenfeld, explaining the baby’s mom then asked Jackson to take the infant overnight on Sept. 2, 1997. “When the victim was hospitalized the following morning, he was suffering repeated seizures and had difficulty breathing. He had obvious brain stem damage and suffered retinal hemorrhaging in both eyes. The injuries were related to shaken baby syndrome. … In addition to suffering severe physical injuries, the victim was also, definitively, sexually abused.”
According to Denenfeld, the infant was expected to survive less than one month but lived for more than two years before dying from his injuries.
“(During that time) he required constant care. He suffered seizures, cried often, and was incapable of becoming comfortable. He was blind and deaf, and suffered from other severe defects as well,” wrote Denenfeld.
In 2001, following the infant’s death, Damon Jackson was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
He had already been convicted of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree for repeatedly raping his son.
Denenfeld ordered Jackson’s resentencing based in part on the defendant’s own “shockingly dysfunctional and abusive” childhood as well as his “stellar” prison record over the last two decades.
In his 22-page decision, Denenfeld listed the factors the U.S. Supreme Court instructed judges to consider when reviewing juvenile life sentences for potential resentencing.
Those factors include a juvenile defendant’s “immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” their “family and home environment,” the “circumstances of the homicide offense,” the juvenile’s potential “inability to deal with police officers and prosecutors” and the “possibility of rehabilitation.”
Of Jackson’s home environment, Denenfeld wrote it was “filled with continuous brutal physical and sexual abuse and controlled by a father who constantly beat the children and sexually abused his daughter, for which he was charged.”
Denenfeld went on to note Jackson’s mother, who suffered from untreated bipolar disorder, did nothing to protect the children.
“The siblings describe two parents who abused drugs and alcohol, which led to a lack of adequate food and clothing throughout the year,” wrote Denenfeld. “(The siblings) and the defendant described an aggressive father who used a braided switch, extension cord, or belt to regularly beat them for no reason.”
Denenfeld also wrote of Jackson’s excellent record while in prison and the determination, based on the prison’s own risk assessment tool, that Jackson was a “LOW risk for violence and a LOW risk for recidivism.”
“In more than 20 years of imprisonment, the defendant has had no fights, no weapon possessions, no drug or alcohol violations and no assaultive behavior or physical resistance to staff,” Denenfeld wrote in his opinion and order. “It is indisputable that the defendant’s shockingly dysfunctional and abusive home environment had a significant impact on him as a teenager and young adult. It is also clear the defendant’s prison records are stellar and that he has indeed been rehabilitated. Therefore, the court concludes that a term of years, and not a Life Without Parole sentence, is appropriate.”
The judge has not yet set a date for resentencing.
Denenfeld wrote that state law requires him to sentence Jackson to a minimum of no less than 25 years and a maximum of no more than 60.
If Denfenfeld goes with the low end at 25 years, Jackson would be released within the next four years because he’s already served 21.
Humanity for Prisoners, a nonprofit that works to ensure prisoners are treated with compassion and dignity, said it supports the judge’s ruling.
“Damon Jackson, at 17, was also still a child at the time this crime happened. He wasn’t the Mr. Jackson we see today,” wrote Matt Tjapkes, president of Humanity for Prisoners, in an email to News 8.
“Research presented often in cases like this shows that the thoughts of a 17-year-old are not that of an adult,” Tjapkes continued. “An important criteria used was ‘Possibility of Rehabilitation,’ which overwhelmingly shows Damon has made positive changes in his life and now has a greater understanding of the impact of his actions. The hard facts of this case show a senseless act leading to a loss of life of a child, and that’s a tragedy Damon has to live with. If he can positively contribute to society, that is a far better redemption than being left rotting in a cell at taxpayers’ expense.”
Leivense, the adoptive mother of David’s sister, told News 8 she’s infuriated by the judge’s decision.
“This little boy was tortured. … Shook and raped, and shook and raped, and shook and raped,” said Leivense. “This judge greatly diminished the crime that Damon committed. Damon committed murder after he tortured this little body.”