By Kyle Swenson
Back in 2011, Scene published an investigative story on a 1975 robbery-homicide that sent three young boys to prison. Although the low-profile shooting barely dented the newspapers at the time, 35 years after the fact, the case would prove to be one of the great injustices in Cleveland history.
As our story showed, the three men — Ricky Jackson (18), and brothers Wiley (20) and Ronnie Bridgeman (17) — were sent to jail for something they didn't do. Both Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman are still in prison to this day.
Yesterday, lawyers from the Ohio Innocence Project filed motions in Cuyahoga County court on behalf of Ricky Jackson, who is now 59 years old, to finally free him from prison. The filings for post-conviction relief confirm what Scene laid out in the feature: the only piece of evidence linking the three to the crime — the testimony of a 13-year-old boy — was a lie. The motion contains new testimony from that witness, now an adult, stating that fact.
“Ricky Jackson has spent practically his entire adult life behind bars for a crime he did not commit,” says Brian Howe, an attorney with the Ohio Innocence Project. “When he went to prison he was barely out of high school. Today he's almost 60 years old.”
On May 19, 1975, a money order salesmen named Harold Franks was attacked and killed outside a corner store south of University Circle. Not long after the crime, the Bridgemans and Jackson were arrested. Police produced a 13-year-old boy from the neighborhood named Eddie Vernon. He claimed he saw Jackson and Ronnie Bridgeman attack Franks, then drive off in a car with Wiley.
No physical evidence connected the three to the shooting — no DNA or fingerprints, no clothing matching the description of what the assailants were wearing, no link to a .38-caliber pistol used in the crime, no connection to the two-tone green car pegged as the getaway vehicle. The money orders stolen from Franks were never located.
In our 2011 feature story, friends recalled being with the boys at the time of the shooting. Also, police records showed informants told police the robbery was the work of known stick-up men. Still, law enforcement never followed up on those leads after the arrests.
Cleveland Police and Cuyahoga County prosecutors hung their whole case on Eddie Vernon's testimony, even though his accounts were pocked with inconsistencies and errors. In the course of four separate trials, defense attorneys repeatedly attacked his credibility. Prosecutors countered: why would the boy lie?
In this week's court filings, an affidavit from Vernon finally gives the answer.
“I think I just wanted to be helpful,” Vernon states in the affidavit. “You have to understand I was 12 years old at the time. I thought I was doing the right thing.”
In the recent filing, Vernon admits he never saw the actual incident. He approached the crime scene with other onlookers after the shooting. Vernon heard a friend mention the Bridgemans and Jackson, although the friend hadn't seen the crime. Vernon, who was friendly with the corner store owner, volunteered the information.
Police put Vernon before a line-up that included Ricky Jackson. The boy didn't identify anyone. “I thought that was it and I would just go home,” he said. “I couldn't understand how the other boys would still be under arrest after I didn't pick them out.”
But the detective investigating the case took the boy into a back room. “He got really loud and angry and started yelling at me and calling me a liar. He was slamming his hands on the table, and pushing things around, calling me this and that. I was frightened and crying. You know it's a scary thing for someone that young.”
Vernon says he was threatened by police. “The detective said that I was too young to go to jail, but he would arrest my parents for perjury because I was backing out. My mom was sick at that time, and that really scared me. I didn't want my parents to get in trouble over this.”
The boy then went back out into the hallway and identified Ricky Jackson. He later testified against all three defendants.
The case snowballed from there.
“We have evidence today that the court and the jury didn't have in 1975,” Howe says. “Edward Vernon, the primary witness for the State, has come forward to admit that he never saw the crime. The State never had any physical evidence implicating Mr. Jackson, and police were investigating several other unrelated individuals in 1975. The only reason anyone looked at Mr. Jackson for this was the identification of Edward Vernon.”
This week's filings request a hearing before a judge to argue for Jackson's release. He's been in jail for 39 years. If he's granted his freedom, Jackson will have served a record-setting sentence for a wrongfully convicted man — 39 years. It's unclear how that will impact Wiley Bridgeman, who is also currently in prison. Ronnie Bridgeman, who served 27 years and eight months for a crime he didn't commit, still lives in the Cleveland area.
He was understandably, and rightfully, emotional after hearing the news late yesterday. “That's beautiful,” he said.
Kyle Swenson is a former Cleveland Scene staff writer. He's currently a staff writer at the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.