After decades behind bars for a 1975 murder they did not commit, Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman have walked free in Ohio. The key witness, a 12-year-old boy at the time, said police coerced him into false testimony.
Ricky Jackson, 57, and Wiley Bridgeman, 60, walked free on Friday after spending two-thirds of their lives in Ohio prisons for a murder they did not commit. The two men, and Bridgeman's brother Ronnie, who now goes by the name Kwame Ajamu, were sentenced to death in 1975.
A child, Eddie Vernon, testified that he saw the trio kill businessman Harry Franks on May 19 that year. Vernon recently admitted that he never saw the murder, saying that police detectives had coerced him into giving false testimony in the trial.
"The English language doesn't even fit what I'm feeling, I'm on an emotional high," Jackson said on Friday after his release, also saying that he harbored no ill will towards witness Vernon.
"I guess a lot of people will want me to hate that person and carry animosity towards them, but I don't," Jackson said. "People see him as a grown man today, but in 1975 he was a 12-year-old kid and he was manipulated and coerced by the police and they used him to get us in prison. As far as that young man is concerned, I wish him the best. I don't hate him, I just wish he has a good life."
Once set for death penalty, now pardoned
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a University of Michigan project tracking wrongful convictions, Jackson's 39 years in prison make him the longest-serving exoneree in US history.
The three-year process leading to the exonerations started with a story published in Scene Magazine in 2011, detailing flaws in the case and questionable elements of star witness Vernon's testimony. Vernon, now 52, recanted in 2013 when a religious official visited him.
During a court hearing for Jackson on Tuesday, Vernon broke down as he described detectives' threats before the trial, and the burden of guilt he had shouldered since. By Thursday, prosecutors had filed a motion to dismiss all charges against the three men.
After Scene's 2011 article, the Ohio branch of Innocence Project, a national organization fighting to exonerate people convicted wrongfully, took up Jackson and Bridgeman's cause.
All three men were initially handed the death sentence, but their sentences were later commuted to life in prison. According to Mark Godsey from the Ohio Innocence Project, "one of them came within 20 days of execution before Ohio ruled the death penalty unconstitutional."
Ronnie Bridgeman, now Kwame Ajamu, was released in 2003; he attended both men's exoneration hearings on Friday.
msh/cb (AFP, AP, Reuters)