Monday, November 24, 2014
Think US justice is fair?
Ronnie Bridgeman had been awake for days, but he didn’t mind that his childhood friend wanted to pace. He was just happy to walk alongside him. Eventually, they batted away TV cameras and headed to a Cleveland-area Red Lobster. Ronnie, his brother Wiley, and Ricky Jackson were united at last.
“It was very emotional and kind of wild,” Bridgeman told VICE. “I’ve been awake since hearing the news, but we had a lot of fun.”
He had a pretty good reason to get so worked up over a simple lunch. After all, Jackson had served 39 years in a Cuyahoga County prison for a murder he did not commit—an egregious error of justice that amounts to the longest imprisonment prior to exoneration in US history. He was set free Friday afternoon at the age of 57.
Jackson and the two brothers had been convicted solely on the eyewitness testimony of a 12-year-old boy with poor eyesight, and Cleveland police ignored almost an entire neighborhood’s insistence that they had not been involved. As it turned out, the boy made up his story.
Ronnie Bridgeman, who spent 27 years and eight months years in prison as Jackson’s co-defendant, came to reporter Kyle Swenson for help in 2009. (Wiley got out on parole in 2001 but re-offended and was also exonerated Friday.) He showed up at the Cleveland Scene with thousands of pages of court transcripts and claimed that his friend was still serving time for a murder they had nothing to do with. The case had already attracted the attention of the Innocence Project Ohio, a group that works to exonerate people through DNA testing, although they hadn’t been able to dig anything up.
As he spoke more and more to Jackson, Swenson realized the man was telling the truth. The key came in revisiting court records, an extremely time-consuming task.
“The big challenge is that you’re talking a city that has a third-world country’s capacity for keeping records,” Swenson told me. “It’s a terrible place to get any kind of public records.” He eventually found what he needed in a dank house that had been converted into an archive.
Besides digging up tons of records that showed Ed Vernon changed his story several times, Swenson canvassed for witnesses to contradict the 12-year-old’s claims. He found plenty. “We found people from the neighborhood that he knew and people they were with at the time at the supposed time as well as Edward Vernon, the witness,” he says.
The resulting story, “What The Boy Saw,” caught the attention of some law students working at the Innocence Project and renewed their interest in the case. Brian Lowe, a lawyer at the organization, said the piece convinced him that the case was winnable. It also gave them something new to focus on: getting Vernon to admit he was lying and finding people to corroborate it. “It was one of the first things I read when I took on the case, and it really sort of sparked my passion ever since,” he says. “We had students out there knocking on doors, looking for people who were there in 1975.”
The big break finally came when Vernon signed an affidavit saying he made the whole thing up. The Innocence Project, armed with that piece of paper, filed for a new trial in March. They also had found five new people to testify that Vernon was lying. Now Ricky Jackson is a free man.
The only dose of luck Jackson’s seen in this whole ordeal—up until now, anyway—is that the death penalty was abolished in 1975. He and his two co-defendants (who were also exonerated) had originally been sentenced to death by electrocution.
“If this had happened ten years earlier, these guys would be dead,” says Swenson. “But what’s kinda scary to me is that while we know about these three guys, who don’t we know about?”