Ricky Jackson, 57, was convicted in 1975 for murdering a businessman. After nearly 40 years in prison, he served the longest prison term of any incarcerated person in history. His exoneration came after the key witness against Jackson, a 13-year-old boy, recanted last year and said Cleveland police detectives coerced him into testifying that Jackson killed businessman Harry Franks the afternoon of May 19, 1975. Hear his account of death row, wrongful conviction, and how the innocence project contributed to his freedom.
On May 19, 1975, 59-year-old Harold Franks, left a neighborhood grocery store located in Cleveland, Ohio and was confronted by two men attempting to rob him. When Franks resisted, the men clubbed him on the head with a pipe and splashed acid in his face. One of the robbers then shot him twice in the chest. Franks died, and 58-year-old Ann Robinson, the co-owner of the store who was shot once in the neck, survived.
The two robbers fled with a green car parked down the street and Frank’s briefcase, which contained about $425. Within a week, police received a statement from from Eddie Vernon, who was only 12 years old at the time. Vernon identified the gunman as 18-year-old Ricky and Jackson and claimed that 17-year-old Ronnie Bridgeman and 20-year-old Wiley Bridgemen, who drove the getaway car, were with Jackson.
Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers had no previous criminal record, until they were arrested on May 25, 1975. They were charged with aggravated murder, aggravated attempted murder and aggravated robbery.
All three were tried separately in Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas in August 1975. No evidence linked any of them to the crime. The prosecution’s case rested almost entirely on the testimony of Vernon.
Vernon’s testimony was very inconsistent. Initially, he had told the police that police that he was on the bus when he saw the two men attack Franks as he got out of his car and walked to the store. However, Vernon testified at the trials, that he was already off the bus when he saw the attack and that the attack occurred as Franks emerged from the store. Ann Robinson testified that she was shot in the neck by a bullet that pierced the store’s front door. She was unable to identify any of the robbers.
A 16-year-old neighborhood girl testified for the defense that she walked into the store just before the attack happened and saw two men outside the store, she states that neither of the two men were Jackson nor the Bridgeman brothers. Many classmates Vernon’s also testified that he was on the bus with them when they heard the gunshots, and that none of them were able to see the robbers.
Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman were convicted in August 1975. Ronnie Bridgeman was convicted in September 1975. All three denied that they were involved in the crime. They all presented witnesses who said they were elsewhere at the time it occurred. Although, they lived close enough to the store where the crime took place and they had walked there after the shooting where there was a crowd of about 100 people that gathered.
Just months after their arrest, all three were sentenced to death. Those sentences were later changed to life in prison.
In 2011, Cleveland Scene magazine published a detailed examination of the case and highlighted the numerous inconsistencies in Vernon’s testimony, and the absence of evidence linking Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers to the crime other than testimony. The article stated that Vernon had been paid $50 by Ann Robinson’s husband to testify at the trial, a fact that was not mentioned in Vernon’s testimony.
Kyle Swenson, the reporter who wrote the article, attempted to interview Vernon, but he refused to talk about the case. Swenson then got into contact with Vernon’s pastor, Arthur Singleton. When Singleton mentioned to Vernon that a reporter wanted to talk to him, Vernon told him to ignore the reporter. Swenson sent his article to Singleton, who had asked Vernon about it, Vernon still refused to talk about it.
However, In 2013, Singleton paid a visit to Vernon in a hospital where Vernon was being treated for high blood pressure. Singleton later said in a sworn affidavit that he asked Vernon again about the article. “Edward Vernon told me that he lied to the police when he said he had witnessed the murder in 1975, and he had put three innocent men in prison for murder,” Singleton stated in the affidavit. “He told me that he tried to back out of the lie at the time of the line-up, but he was only a child and the police told him it was too late to change his story.”
Because of this recantation, Brian Howe and Mark Godsey, attorneys with the Ohio Innocence Project, filed a petition for a new trial on behalf of Jackson. Similar petitions were later filed on behalf of Wiley Bridgeman and Ronnie Bridgeman, who had since changed his name to Kwame Ajamu.
The re-investigation that The Ohio Innocence Project’s had done on the case uncovered evidence that when Vernon attempted to recant his identification of the three defendants, police intimidated him which led him to testify falsely. The police had never disclosed this to the defense attorneys for the three defendants that Vernon attempted to recant his accusation prior to the trials.
The Ohio Innocence Project obtained police reports which showed that police considered two other men, Paul Gardenshire and Ishmael Hixon, as suspects in the crime. Their investigation of these two men were terminated when Vernon identified Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers.
It was later found that the license plate on the getaway car speeding from the crime matched a car that belonged to Hixon, whose police record included a robbery and shooting a year earlier. In 1976, a year after the Franks murder, Hixon also pled guilty to more than a dozen counts of aggravated robbery.
In November 2014, Judge Richard McMonagle held a hearing on Jackson’s motion for a new trial. Vernon testified that police fed him the details of the crime. Vernon told the judge that he was on the bus when he heard the gunshots, and that the bus was close to the store where the crime occurred, but not near enough that he could see anything that took place. Only based on a rumor of what he heard on the street, Vernon said he went to the scene and told police that Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers were the ones that committed the crime. He said that he had no knowledge about what happened at the crime scene, that everything was a lie. He testified that he tried to recant, but the detectives took him into a room and told him that since he was too young to go to jail, they would arrest his parents for perjury because he was backing out. So, Vernon said, he agreed to testify at the trials.
In 2014, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty said the state would no longer contest the motion for a new trial. “The state concedes the obvious,” McGinty said. McMonagle adjourned the hearing until November 21, 2014.
At that time, he granted motions for a new trial filed by Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman and annulled their convictions. The prosecution then dismissed the charges against both men and Wiley Bridgeman and Jackson were released from prison.
Jackson had served 39 years, three months and nine days, this is the longest time in prison of any defendant exonerated in U.S. history.
On December 9, 2014, Ajamu's conviction was vacated and the prosecution dismissed the charges against him.
In February, 2015, they were declared innocent by a judge. Jackson was preliminarily awarded $1 million in compensation pending a final computation by the Ohio Court of Claims. In 2016, the Court of Claims awarded Bridgeman $2.4 million and awarded Ajamu $1.98 million.
In April 2016, Jackson settled his compensation claim for $2.65 million and filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Cleveland and several police officers.