Sunday, November 23, 2014

Two Former Death Row Inmates Freed After 39 Years Of Wrongful Imprisonment

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman walked out of the hell known as the Ohio prison system Friday, exonerated of a horrific slaying that they didn't commit. 

Separately, they stepped out into the bitter winds and gray skies of Cleveland and beamed, hugging friends, lawyers and family. 

They took their first steps of freedom after they each spent 39 years behind bars for the murder of a businessman at a convenience store. 

They were set free just days after the key witness in their jury trials recanted his testimony during a hearing in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.

But neither said he was angry with Eddie Vernon, the witness who, as a 12-year-old boy, told police a lie about something he did not see. Jackson's attorneys, Mark Godsey and Brian Howe from the Ohio Innocence Project, called witnesses who corroborated that Vernon had lied.

Hours after Vernon stepped off the witness stand Tuesday, Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said his case had fallen apart and dismissed objections to Jackson's motion for a new trial. 

Prosecutors later dismissed the charges against the men, effectively clearing the names of Jackson, Bridgeman and Bridgeman's brother, Ronnie, who served 27 years in prison before he was released in 2003. "Finally! finally!'' Jackson said as he left the jail. "It's extraordinary. I'm glad to be out. ... It has been an emotional roller coaster. The English language doesn't have the words to express how I'm feeling right now.''

Jackson, 57, has been in prison since he was 18. He has served more time behind bars – 39 years – than anyone who has ever been released from prison on a wrongful conviction, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Wiley Bridgeman is close behind him. Bridgeman, 60, couldn't stop smiling as he dove into the arms of his younger brother, Ronnie, as he took three steps out of the jail.

Ronnie Bridgeman also goes by Kwame Ajamu, a name he took after leaving prison. "It's amazing," Wiley Bridgeman said. "The bitterness is over with. I carried that too long." Ronnie Bridgeman continued to hug his brother for most of Friday morning.

The two men were never three steps apart. "I don't know what to say," Ronnie Bridgeman said. "I can die tomorrow, and I would be fine with it because those boys made it through the fire.''

For Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman, the two men who spent nearly four decades in prison -- some of it on death row -- the key events of Friday went by in a matter of minutes.

First, Common Pleas Judge Richard McMonagle had a 3-minute hearing in which he set Jackson free. "Life is filled with small victories, and this is a big one,'' said McMonagle, who watched Vernon testify for several hours during the hearing in his courtroom.

"Know who your friends are because everybody will want a piece of you. You better trust the people who you can trust.''

McMonagle's, father, George, was the judge that presided over Jackson's original trial. Jackson thanked McMonagle, as well as prosecutors.

He said they showed integrity in dropping the charges against him. In another twist, it was McGinty, then a young probation officer, who interviewed Jackson before he was sentenced to prison. 

When McMonagle freed him, Jackson looked to the ceiling and closed his eyes. In the back of the courtroom, members of a former prison fraternity, including Clarence Elkins and Robert McClendon watched.

They, like Jackson and Bridgeman, had been exonerated. They said they came to show support to a man who would need a great deal of it in the coming years.

"The first few days, the first few years are so difficult,'' said Elkins, who was the first person exonerated by the Ohio Innocence Project in 2005.

He had been convicted of rape and murder in Summit County in 1999. "I felt like I didn't belong anywhere,'' he said. "Even though you have the support of your family and friends, you just feel like you don't belong. 

He needs to surround himself with good, positive people.'' Two hours after Jackson left the Justice Center, Common Pleas Judge David Matia released Bridgeman.

Moments after the hearing, Ronnie Bridgeman smiled and howled, "That's my big brother!'' Wiley Bridgeman's attorneys, Terry Gilbert and David Mills, worked with the Ohio Innocence Project, which represented Jackson.

They said that after 39 years of being told how to perform every basic function in life, Bridgeman will need to time for re-adjustment. "I don't think you can plan for freedom,'' Gilbert said. "It is something that you have to experience. Hopefully, he can deal with it. I think he'll succeed.''

In 1975, authorities built their case against Jackson and the Bridgemans on Vernon, who said this week he simply wanted to help police. He said a friend gave him the three men's names, and Vernon told police he saw the slaying.

In fact, he said, he wasn't close, as the school bus he rode was not near the crime scene, the Fairmont Cut-Rite on Fairhill Road, which is now Stokes Boulevard.

Authorities said two men attacked Harold Franks as he walked to the store. They beat him, threw acid in his face and one of the men shot him twice with a .38-caliber.

The shooter also fired a round that hit Anna Robinson, the wife of the store's owner. The men stole Franks' briefcase and fled to a waiting car.

Authorities accused Jackson of shooting Franks. There was no evidence linking the three men to the crime.

Vernon said that once he told authorities the names of the three and the fact that he saw the slaying, Cleveland police fed him information about the crime and what happened.

In 2011, Scene Magazine examined the case and Vernon's testimony. Vernon came forward after he spoke with his pastor, the Rev. Anthony Singleton of the Emmanuel Christian Center, last year. But his conscience apparently bothered him for years.

In the early 2000s, Wiley Bridgeman was released on parole for the killing. In a chance meeting just months after leaving prison, he ran into Vernon.

The two talked, and Vernon testified this week that he asked for Bridgeman's forgiveness.

Someone saw the two men together and told Vernon that he must report the meeting to Bridgeman's parole officer, as Bridgeman was told he could not meet with any witnesses in the case.

Bridgeman was soon sent back to prison for a parole violation. Attempts to reach Vernon Friday were unsuccessful.

The Franks family could not be reached either, though the prosecutor's office said they were being kept up to date on the case. Jackson said he wished Vernon the best in the future. 

He said he could not hate him, adding that it took courage for him to come back and testify.

"He is a grown man today; he was a child back then,'' Jackson said, adding that he believed police manipulated him.

Jackson seemed upbeat with reporters afterward and joked with them. Asked what his first meal would be, he said he didn't care, as long as it "wasn't prison food.''

He said he wasn't sure what he would do next. He simply wanted to bask in his new freedom.

A few hours later, the Bridgeman brothers walked out of the Justice Center arm-in-arm. They stopped for photos and hugs.

But they never veered too far away from each other. "I'm never going to let you go,'' Ronnie Bridgeman told his older brother.


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