Janzen Jackson was a prized young football player, a defensive back who donned an orange-and-white University of Tennessee uniform in 2009 after ranking among the top recruiting prospects in the nation.
On Friday, Jackson quietly entered a courthouse in downtown Los Angeles in a yellow shirt and blue pants issued by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and was charged with murder.
In the back of the courtroom, an elderly woman named Mina Ribaldi sat in a uniform of her own: a tan T-shirt bearing the image of her nephew and the words “Justice for Frank Herrera.”
Jackson, who briefly signed as a free agent with the NFL’s New York Giants in 2012, has been jailed since September in the death of Herrera, his mother’s longtime boyfriend. Prosecutors say he strangled the 43-year-old Herrera on Sept. 11 and left his body to decompose in the back of a car for three days. Jackson entered a plea of not guilty Friday.
Jackson’s lawyers would not comment on the case.
During court testimony at a preliminary hearing in April, Jackson’s mother said her son appeared to be suffering from mental issues in the weeks leading up to Herrera’s death.
His arrest on Sept. 16 came after years of a roller coaster career and personal struggles.
Jackson graduated from Barbe High in Lake Charles, La., in 2009. His father, Lance Guidry, is a well-known football coach in the state.
Jackson got off to a promising start in college. But he also made national news during his freshman year when he and two teammates were arrested on suspicion of attempted robbery. The charges were eventually dropped.
Jackson was dismissed from the Tennessee team in 2011 and finished his college career at McNeese State, where his father is an assistant coach. He was a post-draft pickup by the Giants in April 2012 but was released four months later.
He moved to the Canadian Football League, signed with the Toronto Argonauts in February 2013, played five games and was released Aug. 18 for “football reasons,” a team spokesman said.
Jackson came to California and spent several weeks bouncing between his great-uncle’s house in Los Angeles and the apartment his mother and Herrera shared in Santa Monica.
Jackson had been talking to himself and acting strangely, his mother testified, leading her to call county mental health workers in August to evaluate him.
On Sept. 11, Herrera was supposed to drive Jackson to his great-uncle’s house in the afternoon, Tesra Jackson testified. She saw Herrera in the morning before she left for the day. She said she never saw him alive again.
Tesra Jackson said she tried unsuccessfully to reach Herrera that night but discovered his phone was turned off. Then, on Sept. 14, she went over to her uncle’s house and saw Herrera’s car parked nearby, she testified.
Inside the car she could see flies and noticed a distinct smell. Police discovered Herrera’s body underneath a blanket, the cord from a lamp wrapped around his neck.
Investigators say video surveillance from Jackson and Herrera’s building shows a man exit an elevator on the afternoon of the Sept. 11 dragging a large bundle.
Janzen Jackson told police he was the person in the footage, but that the bag was part of a workout routine, Los Angeles police Detective David Torres testified at the preliminary hearing earlier this spring.
Herrera’s family comes to every one of Jackson’s court dates.
“He was the nicest guy on earth,” Hector Herrera said of his deceased brother. “How did this happen to someone like that?”
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