Ricky Jackson, Wiley Bridgeman absolved of Cleveland killing after 40 years
Key witness recants testimony given as a child, saying he was coerced by detectives
Two men convicted nearly 40 years ago in a 1975 Cleveland slaying have walked out of jail as free men, after a witness in the trial recanted the testimony he gave as a young boy.
Sixty-year-old Wiley Bridgeman exited the Cuyahoga County jail just a few hours after 57-year-old Ricky Jackson did the same.
The English language doesn't even fit what I'm feeling. I'm on an emotional high.- Ricky Jackson
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Richard McMonagle dismissed the charges against the two men Friday after the key witness against Jackson, Bridgeman and his brother Ronnie Bridgeman, who was 13 at the time of the trial, said last year Cleveland police detectives coerced him into testifying that the three killed businessman Harry Franks the afternoon of May 19, 1975.
- How can society pay them back? Ricky Jackson, Wiley Bridgeman absolved of Cleveland killing after 40 years
Before standing, closing his eyes and looking toward the sky at the end of the hearing, Jackson thanked the judge and the prosecutors.
"The English language doesn't even fit what I'm feeling. I'm on an emotional high," Jackson said upon walking out of the county jail.
Bridgeman embraced his brother, who was released in 2003 and is now known as Kwame Ajamu, upon leaving the courthouse.
"The bitterness is over," he said.
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 Bridgemans' death sentences were commuted to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment in 1978. Jackson's sentence was commuted in 1977 on a technicality — a mistake in jury instructions.
Witness breaks down in court
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.
I thought I was doing the right thing.- Witness Eddie Vernon
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.
Vernon, in an affidavit signed earlier this year, says he did not recognize anyone when he is shown a lineup of suspects in the 1975 shooting. He said he was pressured to implicate Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers.
"[A detective] got really loud and angry and started yelling at me and calling me a liar," Vernon said. "The detective said I was too young to go to jail, but he would arrest my parents for perjury, because I was backing out."
"You have to understand I was 12 years old at the time. I thought I was doing the right thing." (See full affidavit below.)
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."
With files from CBC News