(CLEVELAND) — On May 25, 1975, Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman went to jail for a murder they didn’t commit. Sentenced to death on the testimony of a single juvenile witness, the men continued to protest their innocence through years of incarceration.
On Friday, nearly 40 years later, they walked out of prison as free men after the state’s witness in the case admitted that he concocted his testimony under police intimidation.
A case suffused with emotion culminated in exoneration Friday morning, when Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Richard McMonagle formally dismissed all charges against Jackson after a brief hearing. Bridgeman, whose case was heard separately, was exonerated two hours later by Judge David Matia.
The two joined Bridgeman’s younger brother Ronnie, now known as Kwame Ajamu, who was found guilty of the same crime and eventually paroled in 2003.
The three were originally jailed for the 1975 murder of Harry Franks, a Cleveland businessman, after a 12-year-old witness named Edward Vernon told police that he had seen them attack the victim. No physical evidence linked them to the crime scene. Jackson was just 19 years old when he was sentenced to die, Wiley Bridgeman was 20, and Ronnie Bridgeman was 17.
“The English language doesn’t have words to express how I’m feeling right now,” Jackson, now 58, told reporters.
Wiley Bridgeman, now 60, quietly thanked the judge and attorneys in the courthouse as his case was dismissed. He had once been less than three weeks away from execution, rescued when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Ohio’s previous capital punishment law in 1978.
The case was a major victory for the Ohio Innocence Project, which coordinated much of the investigation into the exonerating evidence and whose staff attorney, Brian Howe, represented Jackson. Terry Gilbert and David Mills, who together represent the brothers Bridgeman and Ajamu, worked with the Innocence Project during the case.
“It’s been years in the making,” Howe told ABC News. “Literally years of work, witness interviews, tracking people down — all that culminated on Tuesday when the state withdrew its case.”
The first domino on the path to exoneration fell in 2011, when an investigation by reporter Kyle Swenson in The Cleveland Scene, an alternative weekly magazine, cast doubt on the 1975 convictions. Later, the Ohio Innocence Project took Jackson’s case and began investigating.
“Kyle Swenson did some great investigative journalism into the case before anyone had really heard about it, way before Ed Vernon had recanted his testimony,” Howe said. “Kyle’s article was the first thing I read when I took on this case, and that really compelled me to spend those extra nights and weekends digging into it.”
Vernon was sick and in the hospital, wracked with anxiety, when his minister convinced him to come clean. Later, the Innocence Project obtained a signed affidavit in which Vernon forswore the statements he made as a boy.
Last week, Vernon, now a 52-year-old man, took to the stand to give stunning, emotional testimony recanting his childhood statements.
“He was a wreck,” McMonagle, the judge who presided over Jackson’s trial, told ABC News.
“Eddie Vernon broke down on the stand frequently during testimony,” said Gilbert. “He talked about how his life was affected by the stress, the anguish, because for all these years he was afraid that if he came forward with the truth, then he would go to prison.”
Vernon testified that he had been on a school bus when he heard the gunshot that killed Franks. As a 12-year-old, he passed on rumors he had heard to the police incriminating Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers. When he tried to back out of his account at a police lineup, he testified that officers intimidated him into giving false testimony, yelling at him and banging on a table.
“He was a kid,” Gilbert told ABC News. “He hadn’t seen them do it. The police told him that he’d go to jail, that they’d send his mother to jail if he backed out, and he was a scared kid.”
Vernon’s testimony made a powerful impression on the hearing.
Judge McMonagle said, “One of the prosecutors said later that hearing all the evidence and the recanted testimony made her physically sick, that she felt terrible.”
After the hearing, the prosecutors totally conceded, Gilbert told ABC News.
“Everybody’s human,” Gilbert said, “and when you hear this story and hear this man testify, it’s like something you can’t believe.”
On Tuesday, the prosecution withdrew its case after Jackson testified before the hearing.
“We’ve had a lot of emotion in this case this week,” Howe told ABC News. “Ricky spoke on Tuesday, talking about being sentenced to death as a teenager, and we could barely get through the testimony.”
By Friday, the case’s dismissal was a formality. By noon, both Jackson and Bridgeman walked away as free men.
In 1975, Judge McMonagle’s father, George, was the judge who presided over the case when it was first tried. At 9 a.m., he dismissed the case first heard by his father almost 40 years ago.
“It means something when I think about it, since he’s been gone for a while,” the younger McMonagle told ABC News of his father, who passed away in 2002. “I’m retiring at the end of the year myself, and this is certainly something I’ll remember.”
Ajamu, previously Ronnie Bridgeman, was released on parole in 2003, but his case will soon be heard for dismissal, as well. Gilbert told ABC News that, although Ajamu’s team could apply for the case to be dismissed remotely, Ajamu wanted his day in court.
“Kwame wants to hear it from a judge,” he said. “He wants to hear it from a judge that he’s a free man.”
Ajamu, who has a wife now, will temporarily host his brother Bridgeman and Jackson while they sort out their new lives as free men.
“After all this time, they don’t have a penny to their name except for the money they had in their pockets when they were jailed,” Howe said. “We’re going to help Ricky get a wardrobe, and we’re going to tackle some paperwork to get him a birth certificate, some documentation to get him ready to get a driver’s license.”
Howe added that the Ohio Innocence Project had put together a fundraising campaign on GoFundMe to help Jackson get started on his new life out of prison.
“He’s not bitter or angry,” Howe said. “He’s just really looking forward to getting on with his life. He’s excited about getting a job, driving a car. He’s just processing the facts of being a free man.”
After the hearing, Jackson told reporters that he did not bear any resentment toward Vernon after those years of imprisonment.
“He’s a grown man today,” Jackson said. “He was just a boy back then.”
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