Earlier this year, before I joined Carolina Public Press, I wrote a story about Christopher Jacobs, an incarcerated man from Scotland County, and his efforts to receive clemency and release from prison through North Carolina’s Juvenile Sentence Review Board, an advisory board Gov. Roy Cooper created in 2021 by executive order.
In reporting the story, I spoke to Jacobs regularly about his life in prison, the trauma he faced as a child, and the frustration and fear he has felt while awaiting a decision on his JSRB petition. But we also spoke about so many other things, like books we were both reading, my kids and his work as a field minister and counselor in prison.
Now, six months after the story came out, we still chat about all those other things often. But one thing we haven’t really talked much about is what it was like for him to have his life written about and shared online and on the front pages of both the News & Observer and Charlotte Observer.
It’s something I’m interested in, not only because I can learn a lot from better understanding his point of view regarding the reporting process, but also because I’m an incredibly private person and rarely share anything deeply personal with anyone. It’s hard for me to imagine opening up in the same way many of the people I speak to for stories do with me. I’m always grateful that they do and I should express that gratitude more.
Recently, I interviewed Jacobs about this story, specifically about his experience speaking to me over the course of my reporting.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were you thinking when Kristen [Anderson] approached you about being part of this story? [Anderson first connected me with Jacobs and works as a mitigation specialist in North Carolina. She helped Jacobs prepare his application to the JSRB and helped compile mitigation evidence for his Miller hearing, the result of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court Case that ruled mandatory life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional.]
At that time, I think I had actually already been approached with two other opportunities to participate, maybe like an interview, or some research that someone was doing, and one didn’t pan out. And so we had spoken to one organization, and they ran a story.
So some of the fears associated with still having an open case and processes that were going on — like, “OK, what’s the angle here? How is it going to affect me personally?” — some of those things, I had already crossed that bridge, and had begun to develop, just a sense of doing something for the greater good.
I think the way that I would probably assign language to it is having an opportunity to serve as a catalyst to change, or at least be kind of a component to a catalyzing process. From an egotistical perspective, that’s a cool opportunity. Like, who doesn’t want to be part of something or to, you know, to be relevant? From an altruistic perspective, it just feels like a duty, something that you have to do. And I think maybe both of those things were going on in my mind.
There was, and still is, so much uncertainty around the JSRB, and lawyers and advocates didn’t want their clients to speak to me for fear of putting their clients’ clemency chances at risk. At that point, when we finally connected, did you have any concerns going on the record about your experience could affect your chances at relief, or had it been so long since you applied that you figured it couldn’t hurt anymore?
Not so much. It’s funny because I had spoken to Anthony Willis and kind of sought his advice because he’d gone through the process. And, you know, he’s been written about a couple of times. And so he gave me advice, and I really didn’t appreciate the advice. I didn’t use the advice because it just didn’t ring true with who I am and how I like to conduct myself. And basically, his advice was, you know, at times you need to say what you need to say to get to where you need to get to, if that makes sense. And sometimes you need not to say something you may be inclined to say because it may hinder you from getting to where you want to get to.
And for me, I had to be honest. Life has shaped me in such a way that when I’m not being honest, whatever the results are, whether good or bad, I’m not OK with it, like it haunts me. And so, yes, there was kind of this underlying apprehension. But the biggest thing was, I have been locked up almost three decades. If I never got out of prison, am I going to be OK with it? No, I’m not going to be OK with it. I sincerely want to be out. But I can do it. Like, I’ve done it for nearly three decades, and if I have to do it for three more decades, it’s not gonna break me — life is still life.
My fear was more driven by, and it still is, the people who have an investment in my freedom, either the people who are working for it or people who, you know, who are hoping for it. And those two categories, they overlap. Because there are people who want me home today because my life parallels and weaves through their life — like we have shared dreams. That was my biggest fear. Because I was making a decision, not just for myself, I was making a decision for other people also.
What’s something that we talked about for the story that would have fit into that second part of Anthony’s advice, something he wouldn’t have said or would have advised you not to say?
We had some discussion about how I feel about the process of the JSRB, the lack of transparency and whether I have any faith in it.
Do you think it’s easier for Anthony to give that advice because he got out? [Gov. Cooper granted Willis clemency in 2022.]
I think so. He and I, we’ve had a number of conversations, and some of the conversations I’ve come away from feeling like, “Man, I’m glad to have this conversation.” And some of them, I’ve come away from feeling like, you know what, I’m never gonna make this call again. And almost every time that’s happened, it’s been because I’ve had the sense of, “It’s easy for you to say that because you’re there.” So, yeah, I think probably, to some extent, that’s true.
Did you ever have those feelings about me, like “I’m never going to call him back again?”
No, not once.
Really? I would have totally understood if you did. It was such a long process!
Almost from the beginning, I think you set a tone. I don’t know if it was intentional. Maybe it’s just your personality, but it was conversational, familial at times. I think you got to a point where you started sharing some things about your life and your family. So it was almost a quid pro quo in terms of exchange of personal information.
Is there anything you thought could have gone differently, or I could have done differently, or you wish that you had done differently during the process?
I’m disappointed that, at least to date, it hasn’t seemed to have as much of an impact as I’d hoped it would. But I think that has nothing to do with how the process was carried out.
You would have hoped you would have received relief by now, and others would have received relief, since the story came out?
For sure. If nothing else, it could have become kind of an enduring conversation, and it just seems to be quiet right now.
One thing that we talked about after the story was published, and if you’re not comfortable talking about it for this interview I totally understand — was your mom’s reaction to the story when you had a phone call with her after it was published. Can you share her reaction?
It was negative. She took the story completely personal. Like it was a few sentences that either referenced her directly or indirectly and that conversation [with her] led to me responding in a way that I typically don’t respond. Because my response was loud, it was aggressive. And it was hurtful but true. And she hung up on me.
Are you talking now?
We’ve had conversations since then. She’s come around to saying, “It’s OK for now, but it’s not right.” And I just kind of say, “You know, that’s fine.” Now, when we talk, it’s perfunctory conversation about her cats or her chickens, what the pastor said at church — just that kind of stuff. We don’t talk about our relationship. Because of that, there hasn’t been much progress. It’s just kind of festering.
Did you talk much about your relationship before the story came out?
Not much. We kind of had the same thing when Kristin began the mitigation investigation and she had to go out and interview my mom and interview my stepdad and some members of my family. And that’s where some of the stuff came up about … her past and the allegations about her putting me out a few months before I committed my crime. She wholesale pushbacked on all that, people were talking bad about her, lying on her, etc., etc. So we had already gone through that process with that reaction at least once, so it was surprising, but not surprising.
Is there anything else you want to share about your mom?
So, hearing myself say that, I know it was this whole Miller thing and juvenile development, like the instability of my childhood and at times the volatility was important to asserting our case. But in hindsight, I wonder. … I never set out to make my mom look bad. Even now when we’re talking about it, I’m blunting the edges of my words because I don’t want to present her to you as a terrible person or someone who had been a terrible person. Even if that was true at some point, I wouldn’t want to communicate that to you. But even in saying that, I know a lot of things had been hurtful to her, and I imagine they still are. And if I knew there was some way to have navigated it — I mean the interview, the court process, all of it — without exposing her, I think I would have pursued that avenue rather than the one we ended up taking.
I couldn’t send a copy of the story to you immediately after it was published and had to read it out loud to you. I think if I were in your position — to have a story written about my life — being able to read it alone to myself, it’s a very personal experience that’s much preferable. But what was it like for you to have me read the story to you and have me still be involved in that personal kind of experience?
I would say that it was affirming, and maybe it was better, because as much as you can draw from reading it alone, it’s almost like someone is saying, “I acknowledge this. I affirm this.” It’s kind of a cathartic way of experiencing that. It was an emotional experience having you read it, just because some of the stuff still bothers me. Since then, I’ve probably read the story a dozen times, and still every time I read it, it’s powerful.
I should probably revisit it, too. I think after I read it out loud to you, that was it.
Christopher Jacobs isn’t the only person I’ve reported on who is hoping to receive clemency from Gov. Cooper and the JSRB. Both Terence Smith and Sherrod Nichols, whom I’ve written about for CPP’s “Stacked Against” series, have submitted clemency petitions to the JSRB. They’re both waiting on a decision.
Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.