2 men freed after judge dismisses 1975 Ohio case
Nov. 21, 2014
CLEVELAND (AP) — Two men imprisoned for nearly four decades walked free on Friday after being exonerated in a 1975 murder because the key witness against them — a then-13-year-old boy — recanted his testimony.
Earlier a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge dismissed the cases against Ricky Jackson, 57, and Wiley Bridgeman, 60. The witness recanted last year and said Cleveland police detectives coerced him into testifying that the men, along with Bridgeman's brother, killed businessman Harry Franks on May 19, 1975.
Cuyahoga County prosecutors on Thursday filed the motion to dismiss all charges against the three men, who initially were sentenced to death. Ronnie Bridgeman, 57, who is now known as Kwame Ajamu, was released from prison in January 2003. He attended the other two men's hearings Friday.
When he dismissed Jackson's case, Judge Richard McMonagle said, "Life is filled with small victories, and this is a big one."
"The English language doesn't even fit what I'm feeling," Jackson said as he exited the building Friday. "I'm on an emotional high. You sit in prison for so long and think about this day but when it actually comes you don't know what you're going to do, you just want to do something."
Bridgeman, 60, said he never lost hope that he would be freed for good.
"You keep struggling, you keep trying," he said.
Bridgeman embraced his brother Ajamu as he walked out of the courthouse. He seemed overwhelmed by the whirlwind of the past few days, saying he wasn't sure what the future holds, outside of a celebratory fish dinner.
"Stick with me. You'll be all right," Ajamu said. "I ain't never going to let you go."
Jackson and his lawyers planned to celebrate Friday at a hotel. Asked where he was going to live, Jackson replied: "It's ironic. For 39 years, I've had a place to stay. Now, you know, that's precarious."
Ajamu said in an interview Thursday that the prospect of the three being together again is "mind boggling." Ajamu spent his 18th birthday on death row and was in prison when his mother, a brother and a sister died.
"The idea that my brother — both of those guys are my brothers — are getting out? I don't even care about me," Ajamu said.
The three were sentenced to death under an Ohio capital punishment law that was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978.
The Bridgemans' death sentences were commuted to life in prison after the ruling. Jackson's sentence was commuted in 1977 because of a mistake in jury instructions.
The three-year process that led to their exonerations began with a story published in Scene Magazine in 2011 that detailed flaws in the case, including Eddie Vernon's questionable testimony. Vernon, now 52, did not recant until a minister visited him at a hospital in 2013. Vernon broke down during a court hearing for Jackson on Tuesday as he described the threats by detectives and the burden of guilt he had carried for so long.
Attempts to locate Vernon for comment on Friday were unsuccessful.
Jackson said he holds no animosity toward Vernon.
"It took a lot of courage to do what he did," he said. "He's been carrying a burden around for 39 years, like we have. But in the end, he came through, and I'm grateful for that."
The Ohio Innocence Project took up Jackson's cause after the Scene article even though there was no DNA evidence, the hallmark of Innocence Project cases. A Cleveland attorney represented Bridgeman and Ajamu.
Joe Frolik, a spokesman for county prosecutor Tim McGinty, declined to comment on Thursday except to reiterate a statement McGinty made Tuesday: "The state concedes the obvious."