Sammie Jackson Jr. is 39 years old now, an overweight man dressed in wrinkled prison denims and white plastic bedroom slippers. He is an alcoholic, and some doctors say he is mentally ill. Jackson sees himself as a victim of life's misfortune, wrongly accused and always mistreated.
Jackson has spent all but 20 months of the last 22 years in prison, from the National Training School for Boys to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., on charges ranging from purse snatching to robbery.
On Nov. 11, 1977, 28 days after his parole from Leavenworth, Jackson fired a sawed-off shotgun into the hip of a young Washington insurance salesman.
For that, a D.C. Superior Court judge recently sentenced Jackson to serve yet another prison term -- this time a minimum of 11 years in jail for assault with a dangerous weapon.
Sammie Jackson has spent a lifetime paying for his crimes, but punishment has not changed his ways and age has not mellowed his behavior. Experts say he should have "burned out" by now, but instead he finds no peace with himself or the world around him.
"As terrible as it may sound, we may have to end up warehousing Sammie Jackson for the rest of his life," said Pierce O'Donnell, a Los Angeles-based criminal lawyer who has written extensively about sentencing.
"Unless somebody takes the time to care about Sammie Jackson, there is not a ghost of a chance that there will be a change in his life," O'Donnell said.
"I guess from all indications at this point, he's a born loser. I, for one, am not willing to admit that at age 39 somebody is washed up," O'Donnell said.
"I don't remember shooting anybody. I don't even remember having the gun," Jackson said of the incident that occurred outside Blackie's House of Beef on 22nd Street NW.
His victim, Donald Shaw, remembers that night with frightening detail. It began at 11:30 p.m. when Shaw and a friend went to the Deja Vu bar at Blackie's for an after-dinner drink.
"There was a long line in front of Deja Vu, so we tried to sneak in the front door of Blackie's, which lots of people do," Shaw recalled. The door was locked. Nearby stood a man with his face pressed up against the restaurant's outer wall.
"The next thing I knew he was standing next to me, asking me if something was bothering me -- what was I looking at," Shaw said during an interview. Shaw and his friend ignored the man until he ordered them to move to a nearby parking lot. Under a beat-up Army jacket, the man was concealing a sawed-off shotgum.
Shaw stepped back. He turned to two men behind him and asked, "Do you know this guy?" They said no. Shaw turned back to the man and "he blasted," Shaw recalled.
"I saw the gun. I saw the gun go off. I felt the power, the force of it, the sound of it. It's a sound that makes me nervous now," Shaw said.
He staggered. He could not imagine what had happened to him. He fell to the ground and groped for his glasses. He saw blood on his hands. The buckshot had split his leather belt before settling in his left hip.
In the commotion, the man walked away, then began to run.
Nearby at 19th and K streets NW was Insp. Bryant A. Hopkins, the highest ranking police officer on duty that evening. He saw entering a taxi a man who appeared to fit the description of the shooting suspect that had been broadcast on the police radio.
Hopkins followed the taxi, and at 12th and K streets NW, arrested the man. It was Sammie Jackson.
Ten years earlier, then-sergeant Bryan Hopkins of the K-9 squad had arrested Jackson after a robbery at a Georgetown drugstore and a gunfight under the P Street bridge. For that, Jackson had served 10 years in prison.
Sammie Jackson Jr. was born Nov. 22, 1939, in Ridgespring, S.C., the eighth of 13 children. His father was a sharecropper, and his mother washed and ironed clothes.
He was 12 year old when he had his "first run-in with the law," Jackson wrote in a nealty printed, 23-page "Brief Statement of My Life" that was submitted to Superior Court. He was jailed for 30 days for being drunk in public, and later served 90 days for stealing food.
Jackson said that at 14 he was humiliated by his schoolmates after being falsely accused of a sex offense. A few months later, he was charged with breaking into a local store and denied it.
Jackson's mother then gave permission for her teen-age son to move to Washington to live with his sister.
"Once I arrived in Washington, I was unable to get a job because I was underage. So I used to work around Safeway Stores carrying people's packages," Jackson told the court. He was accused of purse snatching.
He spent 15 months at the National Training School for Boys, then located in Washington, and 30 days after his release, he was charged with shoplifting and sent back to the school for another 14 months. Six months after his second release, he was arrested for unlawful entry and served nine months in the D.C. Jail.
Ninety days later, Jackson was charged with housebreaking and served 40 months in prison. In another three months, he was convicted of receiving stolen property and given a two-year sentence.
Ninety days after his release on that charge, Jackson held up the Morgan Pharmacy at 3001 P St. NW and fired shots at Hopkins. He was sentenced to 8 to 24 years in prison and was named by a federal grand jury in connection with two other armed robberies.
"I don't know. It just seems like he can't make enough money or something," said Jackson's sister, a seamstress who lives in Washington.
Jackson often said he wanted the proceeds of his crimes for his family and expressed some feeling that his "people" had been mistreated. He admitted without much enthusiasm, that the long periods in prison that followed his robberies actually reduced his ability to help his family.
Jackson began his term for the P Street robbery at Lorton Reformatory where, he said, he began to drink. That started after his girlfriend, whom he hoped to marry, told him she was pregnant by his best friend.
Disciplinary problems led to a transfer from Lorton to Leavenworth, where he continued to drink. Inmates made large batches of alcohol from fruits and vegetables mixed with water and sugar and left to ferment.
There was marijuana and "more heroin in Leavenworth than there is in all of Washington, D.C., Jackson said.
"There seemed to be great pressure on me all the while I was in Leaven-worth. I had to stay drunk or on drugs to get any peace of mind," Jackson wrote in his statement to Superior Court.
He learned to crochet at Leanvenworth and shyly admits that women in his family have bags full of scarves and ponchos he sent them.
He contends bitterly that Leavenworth officials delayed telling him about the death of his brother, Henry. He said he began to cry when he remembered the shooting death in Washington of his closest sister, Queen. He said he learned about her murder as he leafed through an old copy of The Washington Post.
Four years after he arrived at Leavenworth Jackson received a letter from his girlfriend. She said she was sorry and sent him her picture. Jackson sent her $650 he had earned in the prison's furniture factory so she could make a bus trip from her home in Baltimore to visit him in Kansas.
She was Jackson's only visitor during his eight years at Leavenworth. Recalling when he saw her in the visiting hall at the penitentiary, he said, "I think that was the happiest day of my life. And maybe the saddest also."
She told him she had borne another child by his best friend. "I can't put into words how much that hurt me," Jackson wrote.
In March 1976, Jackson was granted parole. But three days before he was to be released, he was charged with assaulting another inmate and penalized 1,106 days of earned "good time."
Eventually a federal jury acquitted Jackson of the assault charge and in October 1977, after a protracted battle with the parole board, Jackson was released from Leavenworth and headed for Washington. "... (when) I got to Washington, I got lost on the way home. The city had changed so much in the last 11 years and I didn't know anyone outside my family. I didn't have any friends at all," Jackson wrote in his statement to the court. His sister's children had grown and were strangers to him. His girlfriend was living with another man. He felt pressure to get a job.
"I was drinking morning, noon and night... not one day passed while I was out that I didn't drink liquor and beer. A few times I felt like killing myself. But I guess the booze is the only thing that kept me together," Jackson wrote.
Robert A. Muse and A. Franklin Burgess Jr. lawyers from the city's Public Defender Service who represented Jackson, argued that their client's senseless, violent act that night outside Blackie's was a product of drugs, alcohol and Jackson's fragile emotional state.
Jackson eventually pleaded quilty to assault with a dangerous weapon, and the public defenders agreed that their client should serve time in jail for his offense. But, they said, he also needs intensive psychiatric help if he is ever to rejoin society successfully.
"Life has passed this guy by in the most unfortunate and pathetic manner," Muse said.
"When he was a child, he was never given any special treatment when is did things that showed he needer help," Muse said. "That neglect continued." He was treated, Muse said, "as if the only cure was to lock him up."
Jackson's insistence on defending himself against criminal charges led the public defender to set aside thoughts that Jackson prefers to live his life in prison, Muse said. And there has been no effort to explore what may have been the subconscious motivation for Jackson's offenses.
Prosecutor Robert I. Richter agrees that Jackson might have been a different man had his childhood activities been "short-circuited."
But, Richter said in an interview "... it's too late in the game. He has to be kept off the streets."
Eventually, the sentencing decision is made in a state of uncertainty, said Franklin Zimring, director of the Center of Studies in Criminal Justice at the University of Chicago Law School. "Sentencing is kind of the visceral division of American criminal law. You feel, therefore you sentence," he said.
There are no "firm conclusions" that will help a judge understand a man like Sammie Jackson, said Los Angeles lawyer O'Donnell, who has represented hundreds of prisoners.
"The only thing we can be certain of is that we know almost nothing about what makes the Sammie Jacksons of our society behave the way they do," O'Donnell said.
"The first step in making a change in Sammie Jackson's life is to have him think that somebody gives a damn about him, that somebody cares about him," O'Donnell said.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Joyce Hens Green, who sentenced Jackson for his most recent offiense, reached a kind of middle ground when she came to her decision. "You can't write him Green said during an interview chambers.
So Jackson "has to be in a position security from himself and the community so he can receive help," she said.
"All I can do is give him a substantial enough sentence to protect the community and then hope he can indeed see the end of the tunnel," she said.
She could have put roadblocks in his way. Judge Green said. She could have given him the maximum prision term. She agreed to recommend to the Bureau of Prisons that Jackson be sent to a federal penitentiary where he can receive regular psychiatric help.
She is saying, Green said, "I think you have a chance, but you're going to have to work at it."
Jackson wants to serve his time at Lorton so he "could be close to my people.
"I don't know what would happen if I went back to the federal system," he said.