As a Barrett Fellow with the Powell Project, Hill will provide resources, assistance and support to capital defense teams in several jurisdictions nationwide. While working towards avoiding new death sentences in individual cases, Hill will also be a part of broader efforts to challenge ongoing racial disparities in the imposition of capital punishment through systemic litigation.
“Having Jackson as a fellow will significantly increase our capacity in the fight against the death penalty. We’re so grateful to Vanderbilt and the George Barrett Social Justice fellowship for making this possible,” said Julianne Hill, assistant director of the Powell Project.
Hill sought a fellowship with the Powell Project because the organization focuses exclusively on challenging inequitable sentencing practices. By assisting capital defense teams, Hill will play a critical role in the organization’s fight against the most extreme and inequitable sentencing practice in the country. “The Powell Project has only two fulltime attorneys assisting teams throughout several states, so I will significantly increase the resources available to attorneys representing clients facing the death penalty,” he said.
Hill entered law school intent on pursuing a legal career as an advocate against the death penalty. He discovered his career ambition in a class taught by political scientist Frank Baumgartner that Hill took as a freshman at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he majored in economics. “The class focused on racial disparities in the United States death penalty and the number of innocent people who have been wrongly sentenced to die,” Hill recalled. “I knew working against the death penalty was what I had to do—it’s the reason I went to law school.”
Baumgartner became Hill’s mentor, and Hill worked as his research assistant to develop databases of death sentences and news coverage of wrongful convictions in North Carolina. Hill also assisted Baumgartner with research on racial disparities in traffic stop search rates, contributing to Baumgartner’s published work in that field.
Now, Hill says, Baumgartner’s published work will help inform his work at the Powell Project. For example, a recent 2022 report by Baumgartner found that, in Kentucky, death sentences are five times more likely to be imposed in cases with white victims than with Black victims and 11 times more likely when the victim is a white female than a Black male. “I will assist efforts to bring disparities like these to light through litigation,” Hill said.
A native of Tampa, Florida, Hill chose to earn his law degree at Vanderbilt because of its strong Criminal Justice Program. “The professors were the best part of law school for me,” he said, citing his classes in Actual Innocence and Juvenile Justice from Terry Maroney, in Critical Race Theory and Immigration Law from Karla McKanders, and in Professional Responsibility with Cara Suvall. Hill also enjoyed writing about life without parole as an extension of lynchings and the death penalty in Dan Sharfstein’s Legal History of Race Seminar and writing about the failures of death penalty abolition through the substitution of LWOP in Critical Race Theory. Hill spent his third year working in the Criminal Practice Clinic with Dean Sue Kay and Josh Stanton and in the Immigration Practice Clinic with Professor McKanders.
At Commencement, Hill received the Bennett Douglas Bell Memorial Award and was one of two recipients of the Carl J. Ruskowski Clinical Legal Education Award. He gained experience during law school by working as a summer intern at the California Appellate Project in San Francisco in 2020 and at Phillips Black in Philadelphia, where he drafted post-conviction relief petitions, in 2021. He also worked on post-conviction capital cases for the Texas Office of Capital and Forensic Writs throughout his 2L year. He fulfilled the Pro Bono Pledge, through which students volunteer to complete a minimum of 75 hours of unpaid legal work during their three years of law school.
“Jackson has been unwavering in his commitment to anti-death penalty work throughout law school. We are excited that he will begin his career by tackling some of the most extreme inequities in the criminal legal system,” Miller said.
The Barrett Social Justice Fellowship honors the legacy of renowned Nashville civil rights attorney George “The Citizen” Barrett ’57 by enabling a Vanderbilt Law graduate to carry out a one-year public interest project under the supervision and sponsorship of a host organization. The law school funds each fellow’s salary and health insurance at the host organization.
Hill is one of two 2022 George Barrett Social Justice Fellows whose one-year public interest work will be funded by the George Barrett Social Justice Program at Vanderbilt Law School. His classmate Brian Ruben will work with the Colorado Center for Law and Policy to help more than 1 million eligible Coloradans seal arrest records that did not result in prosecution or conviction.