Two years ago most of the people in this small hillside town had never heard of Ida C. Jackson or been inside the low-lying white frame building on nine acres of land which she named the Jackson Home for the Elderly. Inside that small building Jackson housed and cared for about 13 mostly mentally retarded, mostly elderly, wards of the state. For each, she received about $150 a month in federal and state money.
In 1979, Ida Jackson's obscurity ended.
A senior state welfare inspector visited Jackson Home and termed it a horror -- "one of the worst" she had ever seen. Another inspector who assigned to the region had not reported any violations at the home and was fired. And Ida Jackson, 58, was indicted in the deaths of four emaciated elderly people who had died at the home between 1977 and 1979 -- deaths by "deprival of food, deprival of medicine and deprival of proper shelter, especially heat."
Late last week, Jackson was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 12 months in prison and a $1,000 fine in the death of Isabelle Dade Washington. The 72-year-old Washington, an elderly former mental patient who died at the home in January 1978, weighed less than half of what she had when she entered it in 1974.
County prosecutor David Dickey says he will bring Jackson to trial for at least one of two remaining murder charges. The fourth murder charge against Jackson was dismissed earlier this year for what he said was a lack of evidence.
Ida Jackson's trial has split this rural county just north of Charlottesville into three camps: those who think Jackson is guilty, those who don't know what to think, and those, many of them black, who believe Jackson is innocent, taking the rap for a state health care system rife with abuse, a system in which overcrowded state hospitals routinely farm out patients with illnesses far too serious for a home operator to adequately deal with.
The case has caused a commotion in Stanardsville, population 270, and surrounding Greene County, population 7,500. Here the most colorful infractions of the law are usually moonshining and the ongoing family feuds between inhabitants of the innumberable hollows that nestle in the surrounding hills -- hollows with names like Devil's Ditch, Buzzard Rocks and Swift Running Gap.
The first trial attracted spectators from Greene county and beyond, and Virginia NAACP officials say they are watching the entire case closely. "Most people here have reserved their judgment," says Blanche Parrott, the editor of the Greene County Record. "I think most people didn't want to believe that such a thing could happen here."
But prosecutor Dickey, a chain-smoking man of 40 whose large tan house sits on the hill within sight of the courthouse, told the jury that it did, that Jackson had withheld adequate food, shelter, and medicine to make a profit.
"She's guilty," he said last week while the jury was out. "We'll get her on this. We'll get her on the next one, too."
Others are not so sure. "She could have fed 'em plenty," said one man sitting in the back of the courtroom. "But she didn't have the right things. Those patients should have been in the hospital. Costs a lot of money to take care of them. If you don't have it, you can't do it. Simple as that."
"She's got no more business up there than you or me," said Sherman White angrily. White is a retired hospital technician and the octogenarian owner editor and publisher of a black newspaper in nearby Charlottesville. "She's a kind, big-hearted person who'd give you the shirt off her back. She couldn't starve anyone to death. It's more likely she was feeding them to death than starving them to death. If she's guilty, there's a whole lot of white people guilty, too."
Those who know her say Jackson came to Greene County in 1974, from Charlottesville, where she'd operated a smaller but similar home. Before that, she had run a home near Lynchburg. She originally planned to buy some 60 acres, but wound up with nine acres and a two-story white frame house. She had the small six-room home for the elderly patients built close to the main house.
Jackson didn't take the stand last week, and remained impassive even as the judge pronounced verdict. Only once did anyone see her expression change. That was on the last day of the trial, after the jury had gone out, when the concensus among onlookers was that she would be aquitted. Jackson walked into the noon sun and posed briefly for photographs with her lawyers.
"Don't be fooled," warned one of several elderly black women who attended the trial, and said she knew Jackson from visiting the home each Christmas with her women's club. "She's all torn up inside. She's not guilty, you know. She wasn't trying to make money off those people. She never made a dime. Ida Jackson could never starve anyone to death. No one can make me believe that."
In the end, of course, that's precisely what the jury did believe -- all except one of them, anyway. Shortly after the verdict was announced Thursday night, after Jackson had left the courtroom and most of the spectators had gone home, juror Grady Haney, a beef and pork farmer, emerged from the courtroom. Pale and tired, he leaned against one of the courthouse's thick white pillars, and delivered a verdict of his own.
"I was the only one who wanted her acquitted," he said. "I'm the one who kept them out for so long. The whole case was vague in everyone's mind. I wanted to let people know it wasn't just negligence on Mrs. Jackson's part. There was negligence on the part of a lot of people in Greene County. They shouldn't shove the burden on other people -- and victimize them."
A small town being a small town, it was just minutes before both sets of lawyers had heard what Grady Haney had said.
"I'm going to move for a mistrial," defense lawyer L.B. Chandler said before striding out into the dusk.
Prosecutor Dickey was just as succinct: "He won't get it."