by Lonnie Burton
On February 22, 2016, the State of Ohio and two men imprisoned for decades for a murder they did not commit agreed to a settlement totaling more than $5.9 million. A third defendant convicted in the same case separately settled his claims for $3.65 million.
The case began in 1975 with the slaying of Harold Franks, who was attacked outside a Cleveland convenience store. A 12-year-old boy identified three men – brothers Wiley Bridgeman and Ronnie Bridgeman (who later changed his name to Kwame Ajamu), and Ricky Jackson – as Franks’ killers. The boy, Eddie Vernon, now 52, later recanted his identification when he testified at a hearing, saying that he lied to the police about having witnessed the murder and that a friend gave him the three names. He then passed the names along to detectives, who fed the boy information about the case and refused to let him change his testimony. According to court records, there was no other evidence tying the defendants to Franks’ murder.
All three men were originally sentenced to death but later had their sentences reduced to life. Ajamu was paroled in 2002, though his parole was revoked after he had a chance encounter with Vernon, who was working as a security guard at a shelter where Ajamu was staying. Ajamu was returned to prison but paroled again in 2003. Bridgeman and Jackson essentially stayed in prison until their convictions were overturned in November 2014. In all, Ajamu spent 28 years behind bars while Bridgeman and Jackson were incarcerated for 39 years.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Shannon Gallagher declared the three men had been wrongfully convicted after a short hearing during which Vernon testified about his recanted testimony. That ruling opened the door for Ajamu, Bridgeman and Jackson to file claims entitling them to more than $51,000 a year for each year they were locked up.
County prosecutors later filed documents declaring all three men to be innocent of the charges. Ajamu said that after spending 28 years behind bars the “biggest adjustment has been all the little things.” Jackson said his favorite thing is “just being able to come and go when I want.”
“Gentlemen, I am truly sorry for what happened to you,” Judge Gallagher stated at the conclusion of the hearing. “I wish all of you nothing but the best.” He then walked down from the bench and hugged all three former prisoners. They all cried.
The 39 years that Jackson and Bridgeman served in prison represent the longest time in U.S. history a wrongfully convicted person had spent behind bars before being exonerated, said the Ohio Innocence Project, which provided legal services to Jackson.
Jackson initially received more than $1 million for his claim against the state and later received another $2.65 million; Bridgeman was awarded around $1.98 million for wrongful imprisonment plus $1.4 million for lost wages, while Ajamu received $1.3 million for wrongful imprisonment and another $1.3 million for lost wages. Those amounts include settlements reached between March 2015 and April 2016.
Ajamu and Jackson will be 60 years old this year, and Bridgeman will be 63. Despite the lost decades, they have remained optimistic about their futures. “Nobody’s going to stop me because I’m a free man now,” Jackson told reporters. “If I want to go out for a walk at night, I can do it.”
Along with the Ohio Innocence Project, Cleveland attorneys Terry H. Gilbert and Jacqueline C. Greene of Friedman & Gilbert, and David E. Mills of the Mills Law Office, LLC, represented the men in their claims against Ohio officials. See: Ajamu and Bridgeman v. The State of Ohio, Court of Claims (OH), Case No. 2015-00149-WI.
Notably, the settlements described above only represent amounts awarded to Ajamu, Bridgeman and Jackson in their claims against the state. All three former prisoners are also pursuing federal lawsuits against Cleveland officials, including police detectives. Those cases remain pending. See: Ajamu v. City of Cleveland, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ohio), Case No. 1:15-cv-01320-CAB and Jackson v. Cleveland, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ohio), Case No. 1:15-cv-00989-CAB.
Additional sources: www.reuters.com, www.law.umich.edu
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Related legal cases
Ajamu and Bridgeman v. The State of Ohio
|Cite||Court of Claims (OH), Case No. 2015-00149-WI|
|Level||Court of Claims|
Ajamu v. City of Cleveland
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ohio), Case No. 1:15-cv-01320-CAB|
Jackson v. Cleveland
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ohio), Case No. 1:15-cv-00989-CAB|