Courtesy 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.