A former Columbus High School chorus teacher will spend seven years in the Mississippi Department of Corrections, following a guilty verdict in a child exploitation case this week.
A Lowndes County jury found Michael Jackson, 35, guilty on Thursday, and Lowndes County Circuit Court Judge Lee Coleman sentenced him to 12 years in prison with seven to serve and five suspended Friday morning. Jackson must also register as a sex offender.
Jackson was arrested in February 2014 on allegations he had solicited a male junior at the high school for sex in a series of text messages in November and December of 2013. The jury deliberated for about 45 minutes before reaching a verdict at the end of a three-day trial, after which both attorneys said made them want to never give their children cell phones.
The Dispatch does not identify victims of sex crimes. The victim was 17 at the time of the incident.
Jackson’s attorney, Chris Kitchens of Ripley, said he felt the sentence was harsh, given he has represented female teachers found guilty of having sex with students who only serve probation — though he added Coleman was gracious by not sentencing Jackson to the maximum sentence of 40 years.
“I think probation would have been reasonable because Michael Jackson … has lost his right to teach,” Kitchens said. “He never stepped foot back in the school after he was arrested. He’s never going to be a teacher again. … He won’t be someone who is a teacher preying on students anymore.”
District Attorney Scott Colom said in court the victim requested a seven-year sentence for Jackson.
“I think the evidence was strong that the defendant sexually pursued a student and he confessed to it (to police investigators before the trial),” Colom said after the sentencing hearing. “…The court had to make a determination as to what was the appropriate sentence.”
Over the course of the trial, attorneys presented dozens of pages of screen shots of messages allegedly between Jackson and the victim.
The victim turned his cell phone over to investigators in 2014, and investigators also recovered deleted messages to piece together the conversations, which ranged from the victim and Jackson’s interests in things like fashion and cars to whether the victim was gay or a virgin. At one point in the messages, they make a plan to meet at a gas station for the victim to perform a sexual act in exchange for more than $200.
Jackson and the victim never met in person after the text messages started, though the victim testified he had seen Jackson around school before that. Investigators also never found the messages on Jackson’s cell phone or other electronic devices.
In closing statements, Jackson’s attorney, Kitchens pointed out that the victim testified he had not deleted any of the text messages but that investigators with information-technology expertise had managed to retrieve several that had been deleted. Kitchens also reminded the jury the victim never reported the texts to authorities and never told Jackson he was underage during the course of the texting. He also pointed out the victim was someone who took pride in his appearance, liked expensive clothing and accessories and considered himself to be more mature than his peers — something the victim himself said during his testimony.
“They didn’t do anything,” Kitchens said. “They texted. They talked about some really raunchy stuff … and in there, there’s nowhere where (the victim) says, ‘Hey, slow your roll, dude. I’m 17.'”
Kitchens said what Jackson did was only a crime if Jackson knew the victim was underage and that Jackson was being persecuted unfairly because he is gay.
“There’s some awful, awful stuff in these text messages,” Kitchens said. “…(But) it’s not against the law to be gay.”
But Assistant District Attorney Lindsay Clemons, who prosecuted the case, said: “The crime is in the text messages.”
She pointed out underage kids are often flattered to receive attention from adults and that after the text messages ended, the victim waited before reporting it because he was embarrassed. She pointed out the victim only told his mother because she was also a teacher at the school and he didn’t want her to hear about it from anyone else. By winter break, the victim said, students were beginning to spread rumors about an affair between Jackson and the victim.
Ultimately, Clemons said, it doesn’t matter whether the victim participated or wanted the attention.
“That’s not the law,” she said. “We rely on adults to make these decisions. You’re not allowed to solicit sex from kids. Period. It doesn’t matter how much they want it.
“Consent is not a defense,” she later added. “I don’t know how many times I can say it. (The victim) could have been a prostitute and it would not make it any less of a crime.”