Exonerated: How This Innocent Man Spent 39 Years In Prison for a Murder He Didn’t Commit

A crime, a lie, life sentences and vindication: The remarkable story of how three innocent Cleveland, Ohio men earned their freedom after decades in prison, ending the longest wrongful incarceration in American history.

may 15 longest wrongful incarcerationCourtesy Cleveland Scene

Before they threw him in chains, he was a gutsy kid with wandering feet.

The Cleveland Museum of Art was a favorite. He’d go alone, even though he was only six. Entry was free, and Ricky Jackson’s shoes would squeak down the marble hallways hung with Dutch masters and Monets. He always stopped in the Armor Court to look at the polished knights; here was a world as strange as the places on Star Trek,the show his stepfather watched on TV.

He kicked around the streets too. He’d jump on the bus and go as far as his change took him. His family—mom, stepdad, two brothers, and a sister—moved as well, from house to house, and eventually they ended up on Arthur Avenue. One house down was a family with a son around Ricky’s age. Ronnie was a kid so tiny that everyone called him Bitzie, as in itsy-bitsy. Bitzie’s older brother, Wiley, was known as Buddy. As teens, the trio became inseparable, playing chess and tooling around in Buddy’s Sebring.

By the mid-1970s, Ricky was punching in regularly at a restaurant. Bitzie was doing shifts as a porter, and he’d completed training in welding. Wiley was in the National Guard and working at a clothing store. They were good kids easing into that age when they were starting to figure it all out.

That life came to a close in the fall of 1975, when Ricky Jackson along with Bitzie and Buddy—Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman—were sentenced to death. A white salesman had been robbed at a corner store, shot, and killed. The police said Ronnie and Ricky beat the man before Ricky pulled the trigger and Wiley drove them away. No physical evidence linked them to the crime (the crime scene is pictured above), but a witness, 12-year-old Edward Vernon, told police he’d seen it all.

Ricky, Ronnie, and Wiley were 18, 17, and 20 years old, respectively. They were innocent—but it would take nearly 40 years to prove it.

The Chance Encounter

In November 2001, the past hit Edward Vernon like a falling anvil. He was at the desk at the City Mission, checking the IDs of the homeless men shuffling in. He overheard a stranger explaining he’d just paroled out after 25 years for a 1975 murder he didn’t commit. When the man showed his ID, Vernon stared at the name: Wiley Bridgeman.

By 2001, Vernon’s life was straightening out. His adult years had been clouded by cocaine and marijuana; he did jail time after a drug bust. But that was behind him. Now here was Wiley, one of the three he’d sent to prison, in front of him a quarter century later.

The next day, Vernon approached Wiley in a group therapy session, blubbering. The men talked. Wiley told Vernon they should go to a TV station with the truth. Vernon wasn’t so sure. He kept his distance, and Wiley moved into an apartment. After an argument with his parole officer in 2002, Wiley went back to prison. As far as Vernon was concerned, the door had swung shut on the past again.

A Changed Man

Home was the last place Ronnie Bridgeman (shown, right, after his release) wanted to go when he paroled out in 2003. (Because he was identified as the shooter, Ricky had difficulty getting parole.) “Cleveland was no longer my town,” Ronnie said recently. “It represented everything that was ugly and hurtful. It had nothing to do with the people I knew per se, but it was the people who were supposed to protect and serve. They ruined it for me.”

Inside, he’d converted to Islam and changed his name to Kwame Ajamu. “I decided Ronnie Bridgeman should be left there in prison,” he says. Returning home made that hard. “Every day of my life, it seemed like I would run into someone from my past, someone who knew Ronnie Bridgeman but who didn’t know Kwame Ajamu.”

He put together a life. He married a woman named LaShawn in 2004; he found work at the County Board of Elections. Things were good, but the past kept tugging at him. “For a long time, I just felt like I had abandoned those guys because they had let me out,” Kwame said. “It was killing me, man. That motivated me every day.”

He called people from the old neighborhood, asking if they remembered anything about the 1975 incident, and contacted lawyers about mounting a challenge to the convictions. Lawyers, however, cost money, which Kwame didn’t have. I was a writer at Cleveland Scene, the city’s alternative newsweekly, when a lawyer told me about Kwame. I went to meet him one day at a coffee shop. He was sitting with thousands of pages of court documents in a neat stack.

I expected anger from someone who’d been wrongly put away, but Kwame had learned to metabolize the injustice. He was remarkably empathic, even about Edward Vernon. “He was just a kid then,” he said.

As Kwame explained it, the testimony that led to their convictions went as follows: On May 19, 1975, Vernon claimed he’d left school early and boarded a city bus home. When he arrived, he saw Ricky and Ronnie struggling with Harold Franks outside the Fairmount Cut-Rate store. They splashed the man with acid and beat him before Ricky shot him twice. The two sped off in a green car, which Vernon said he’d seen Wiley driving earlier.

All lies, Kwame said. On the day of the crime, he and Ricky played basketball in a park in the morning before heading to the Bridgeman house. Kwame and Ricky spent the afternoon at the chessboard until they heard there was trouble at the corner store. Wiley was washing his car outside. The boys went to see what was going on.

I did six months of reporting, which backed up Kwame’s account. I found witnesses who said they were with Vernon when he was supposedly witnessing the crime. Others remembered being with the Bridgemans and Ricky at the time they were allegedly robbing the store and murdering Franks. None of them was approached by the police during the investigation nor had any of them come forward with their information.

My reporting showed that the men’s convictions were based on Vernon’s improbable, inconsistent testimony. Vernon, however, did not want to talk. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a done deal,” he said in 2011 after I finally tracked him down.

Months of work built up to June 8, 2011, the day of my story’s publication. Then, nothing. Ricky and Wiley were still inside. “It actually crushed me,” Kwame said.

may 15 longest wrongful incarcerationJohn Kuntz/ The Plain Dealer/ Landov Media

A Reckoning

Cleveland’s Emmanuel Christian Center is one of the steady pulses of life in an area of gutted blocks. Vernon has bowed his head there on Sundays for the past six years. Pastor Anthony Singleton, a lanky, dapper man of God, likes to park himself in the lives of his 200 or so parishioners. As soon as Vernon began attending, Singleton struck up a relationship. Drink, smoke, and vulgarity never passed Vernon’s lips, and he knew his Scriptures and ministered to the sick. Still, “there was always this black cloud over him,” Singleton said.

Bad luck dogged the man. “In a two-year period, he lost, like, two cars and three jobs,” the pastor said. “I’m just saying to myself, ‘This is not making any sense.’ ” Then there was the crying. Vernon often burst into tears at services. During the year, Singleton held shut-ins for the congregation’s men, all-nighters of spiritual searching, where Vernon wept dusk to dawn.

One day Singleton answered the phone in his office. I was asking to speak to Vernon. Singleton said he’d relay my message, and he was curious about why I was calling. He asked Vernon and got the brush-off.

After my story appeared, Singleton read it. When he tried to nudge Vernon into talking, Vernon refused. Singleton knew he couldn’t push it with his parishioner. But he also couldn’t leave it alone.

In early 2013, Vernon was hit with skyscraping blood pressure that put him in the hospital. During the same period, an attorney from the Ohio Innocence Project called Singleton, asking to speak with Vernon about the 1975 case. One Sunday after church, Singleton trekked to the hospital and found Vernon alone. “I have something to talk to you about,” the pastor said. “I’ve been praying about it and watching you.” He explained to Vernon that he’d read my Cleveland Scene story. “I want to know if you’re ready to talk about it.”

Vernon was out of the bed like someone had cracked a starter’s pistol. Arms wrapped around Singleton, he wept. The words tumbled out. Vernon confessed to Singleton. And in April 2013, in a sworn affidavit taken by the Ohio Innocence Project, he admitted he’d not only lied about witnessing the murder, but he also claimed he had been forced to do so by the police.

Vernon told the lawyers that he’d gone home on May 19, 1975, on his school bus, not earlier as he’d testified. While the bus was pulling up to his stop, Vernon heard gunshots ringing from the Cut-Rate. By the time he rushed over, Franks was gasping his last breaths. He and a friend, Tommy Hall, walked home. Hall told Vernon he knew who did it: “Ricky, Bitzie, and Buddy.”

Vernon returned to the scene later, and when an officer asked if anyone had information, Vernon offered the boys’ names. “I don’t exactly know why I went up to the police at first,” he said later. “I think I just wanted to be helpful. You have to understand I was 12 years old at the time. I thought I was doing the right thing.”

According to Vernon, when detectives spoke with him in the days after the murder, they gave him details gleaned from other witnesses—the number of assailants, the weapons used, the make and model of the car. After police arrested Ronnie, Wiley, and Ricky, Vernon went to the station to look at a lineup.

He failed to make an ID, and a detective took him into a back room. “He got really loud and angry and started yelling at me and called me a liar,” Vernon stated in his affidavit. “He was slamming his hands on the table and pushing things around, calling me this and that. I was frightened and crying. The detective said that I was too young to go to jail but that he would arrest my parents for perjury because I was backing out. My mom was sick at that time, and that really scared me.”

The police wrote a statement, which Vernon signed. After the first trial, he was given a copy of his testimony to study for subsequent hearings. This testimony was all that pinned the murder to Ronnie, Wiley, and Ricky. What’s troubling is how much other evidence pointed elsewhere.

The day after the murder, the FBI contacted Cleveland detectives with names from an informant. The list included brothers Arthur and Willie King, who had been tied to earlier stickups. The police also traced a green car matching the description of the getaway vehicle to 23-year-old Ishmael Hixon. A woman from the neighborhood told police she believed her 16-year-old son, Paul Gardenshire, was involved. Witnesses didn’t come through with an ID. But in June 1975, after the arrests, another resident fingered Gardenshire. He claimed that the teen had a .38, the caliber of gun used in the murder, and drove a green car, but he was never charged.

may 15 longest wrongful incarcerationJohn Kuntz/ The Plain Dealer/ Landov Media

Life Inside

Mad doesn’t begin to touch it, nor does angry. Despair doesn’t suffice. Use as many synonyms as you want, but words can’t cage the feeling: One moment, you’re a young man, life stretching ahead. Then you’re in a cell. For no reason. When Jackson and the Bridgemans went to prison, each coped in his own way.

Wiley (shown, above, after his release) poured himself into his legal case. He won a retrial in 1977 but was again given the same sentence. At one point, he was 20 days away from execution before his sentence was commuted to life in prison. His mental state deteriorated until he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In a way, Wiley’s breakdown helped save his brother. Ronnie focused on his older sibling, worrying about his state and keeping it together for him.

As for Ricky, “I dealt with it badly,” he said. “I was acting out, showing aggression, having this I-don’t-care attitude.” He was racked with anxiety, his blood pressure geysered high, and a pain chewed at his stomach. It went on for years. What turned him around was the company he was keeping. He saw lifers who had let bitterness burn away everything else. He realized he couldn’t let rage sit in the driver’s seat. “It was a gradual thing,” he told me. “It just didn’t hurt as bad. But the truth is, the anger doesn’t disappear.”

He read all the time. Science fiction was a favorite; it went back to watching Star Trek with his stepdad. “As bleak as my reality was, I could always fantasize about the future or pick up a book and be on another planet or be in another time.” Ricky also enrolled in classes, and he found a passion for gardening. He liked the whole process—seed to flower, the care and attention and detail—and grew poinsettias for the annual prison sale.

And he maintained his innocence. Five times, he was up for parole. Each time, he’d be considered for release if he admitted what he’d done and expressed remorse. Each time, he’d say he didn’t do it. Over the decades, Ricky wrote to organizations that dealt with wrongful incarceration, including the Ohio Innocence Project.

The Ohio Innocence Project operates out of the University of Cincinnati’s law school, and it had a file open on Ricky’s case for years. Although the law students felt the inmate was innocent, the case lacked a sturdy legal basis. Vernon, however, was a game changer.

Last March, the Ohio Innocence Project filed a motion for new trial with the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court on behalf of Ricky Jackson (pictured, left, after his release). It argued that Vernon’s recantation was evidence that would have changed the original trial. The attorneys also filed a motion for post-conviction relief on the basis that Jackson’s constitutional rights had been violated in 1975 because the defense didn’t know about the pressure placed on Vernon to cooperate.

In a letter Ricky sent me in the following months, his response to the news was gut-wrenching. “Honestly, though, I doubt this will ever be over entirely. How do you shake off something that has been a part of your life for so long?” he wrote from prison. “As much as I might long for some semblance of a ‘normal life,’ there are certain realities that I have experienced throughout this whole ordeal that have so profoundly changed the way I look at everything and everybody, I simply have to accept the fact that I will never be happy or completely whole again. They broke something inside of me.”

He also knew the odds were against him. Exoneration in wrongful conviction cases is rare: In 2013, 87 people nationwide were cleared of crimes. Ohio has an incentive to fight claims since it compensates wrongfully imprisoned individuals some $40,000 a year, as well as pays their court costs and lost wages; the state is also open to legal action by exonerees.

The Truth Comes Out

Ironically, Ricky’s case landed in the courtroom of Richard McMonagle. His father, George McMonagle, had presided over the original 1975 trial. As Judge McMonagle’s courtroom filled for Jackson’s trial on the morning of November 17, 2014, Vernon—a shrunken man in his 50s—entered. At the defendant’s table, Ricky, 57, his hands and feet in chains, watched the witness cross the room to take the stand.

The defense attorney took Vernon through the day of the crime and his encounters with the police. He admitted that he had not seen the crime and had not picked Ricky and Wiley out of a lineup. After that, he testified, he’d been threatened. “[The detective] said, ‘We’ll fix it,’ ” Vernon said, words trickling out between tears. “After that, they took a statement from me that I was scared, that’s why I didn’t pick them out of the lineup. But I wasn’t scared. I didn’t pick them out because I knew they didn’t do it.”

Ricky’s attorney, Brian Howe, asked Vernon whether he had seen Ronnie Bridgeman, Wiley Bridgeman, or Ricky Jackson tussling with Franks. No, no, no, answered Vernon.

“How did you feel about testifying about something that you knew wasn’t true?” Howe asked.

“I felt really bad about it. Guilty about what I was lying about. I carried all of that,” Vernon said.

Ricky’s hands were clasped to his face with his eyes shut tight, as the truth was spoken. Finally, he thought.

Justice for All

Vernon’s stint on the stand ended the next day, and the courtroom was largely empty as the clock swung around to 2:15 that Tuesday afternoon. Suddenly, several lawyers from the state marched in with Cuyahoga county prosecutor Tim McGinty bringing up the rear.

“We are waiving final argument on the issue,” McGinty began. “The state, in light of the evidence produced by the defense at this hearing, and the total recantation of the key witness, hereby drops our opposition for a motion for a new trial.

“The state concedes the obvious; it is no longer in a position to retry the case. And as all key witnesses that might produce any collateral evidence are no longer living, we do so fully recognizing that the result will be the eventual release of Mr. Jackson and the other codefendant. If the court does grant their motion, which we no longer oppose, we will move for a dismissal today.”

There was a pause as the words slid into place: Ricky was getting out.

“All right,” McMonagle announced. “Mr. Jackson, we’re going to get you back here on Friday, just so that all the paperwork is done.”

“Thank you, sir. Thank you. Thank you,” Ricky cried, before burying a sobbing head in his hands. When he came up for air, he shook hands with his legal team (shown, above right). Someone pulled out a phone, asking Ricky who he wanted to call. From memory, he recited Kwame’s number. “Hello … Who is this? … This is Ricky … Hey, it’s over, man … It’s over, bro, I’m coming home … Friday, man. Friday. Friday … Be here to get me. Please … Let everybody know … I love you.”

On Friday, Kwame worked the pedal with a heavy foot as he and his wife, LaShawn, drove to Ricky’s 9 a.m. hearing. He hadn’t slept in three days. His brother Wiley had been brought to Cleveland on the judge’s order, so he might get out as well.

Inside the courtroom, the guards led in Ricky Jackson. His prison jumper was gone, and he was wearing dress slacks and a zip-up argyle sweater. A smile spread across his face, revealing perfect white teeth. “Life is full of small victories,” Judge McMonagle said before closing Ricky’s legal case. “This is a big one.”

An hour later, Wiley Bridgeman walked free as well.

Ricky paced the holding cell as paperwork was stamped. More waiting in a lifetime of waiting. He didn’t know it, but 16 floors below, cameras and reporters clogged the hall where he’d soon take his first free steps. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Jackson’s 39 years is the longest wrongful incarceration term to end in release in American history.

The three boys from Arthur Avenue met at a nearby hotel, all together for the first time in 39 years. Now men, they embraced. Kwame’s wife, LaShawn, stepped forward. “Hey there, brother,” she said before hugging Ricky.

Lunch was at Red Lobster. Ricky, Kwame, and Wiley bulldozed their feasts. Someone ordered a glass of champagne for Ricky. “Tastes like manna from heaven,” he announced.

That night, although they were all exhausted, they drove around the city until 2 a.m. They rolled through their old neighborhood, including Arthur Avenue, abandoned now and drowned in shadow. For Ricky, it was like sci-fi, like getting off one of those ships in Star Trek, confronting a strange new world.

Update: In March 2015, Jackson received an award of over $1 million in compensation from the state; this amount represents about half of what his final settlement will be, Cleveland.com reported. The tax-free award will go in annuity account to be run with help from a financial advisor, Michele Berry of Cincinnati, Jackson’s attorney from the Innocence Project, told the site.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest