Thirty-nine years is a long time. That is how long Ricky Jackson—sent to prison in 1975 for a crime he did not commit—has been living with the knowledge he was serving someone else's time. Someone else's punishment.
During these many years, when hope likely seemed like something so fragile he could barely think it, lest it disappear, Jackson "had to pull himself together" and "be a man," as he told the throng of reporters and news cameras awaiting his exit from the Justice Center in Cleveland, a free man as of 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time, Friday, November 21. I think this is good advice for the rest of us, most particularly our criminal justice system and culture, which quite clearly, in light of Ferguson and Florida State University, seriously needs to get its shit together.
Jackson's story is unique, but only in how long he was made to suffer for a crime he didn't commit. Barely shaving age, Jackson, 19, was charged and found guilty, along with brothers Ronnie and Wiley Bridgman, of shooting and killing a businessman outside a Cleveland corner store in 1975. All three were originally sentenced to death, later commuted to life. Jackson would spend nearly the next four decades of his life locked up, making him the longest-serving person in the history of the country later found to be innocent.
How was he and the brothers Bridgman found guilty, without any physical evidence tying them to this heinous crime? With one very thin bit of evidence, as told by founder and Director of the Ohio Innocence Project—housed at the University of Cincinnati Law School—Mark Godsey:
The case against Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers was based on the testimony of a 12-year old boy, Ed Vernon, who claimed that he witnessed the murder in broad daylight on a public street in front of a neighborhood deli, and could positively identify all three defendants. He provided great detail about how the murder went down, including a description of the green getaway car the defendants allegedly sped away in.
But there is much more to this story, some of which will seem awfully familiar. A white man was murdered, and police were looking to find who did it. But instead of trying to catch the right guy, they found a 12-year-old African American boy, Ed Vernon, and pressured him to lie about having witnessed three specific men, African Americans all, of committing this gruesome act.
The pressure the officers applied included throwing items around an interrogation room to scare him and the threat of arresting his parents. So Vernon lied in 1975 and lived with that lie for years. But in 2013 while in the hospital, he told the truth to his visiting pastor, and at the subsequent retrial, he broke down as he recanted his testimony on the stand. So in reality, he too became a victim of an out-of-control justice system living with the burden of his coerced mendacity all these years, knowing he helped put innocent men in prison. He was a courageous man to speak up.
This story would also not be near complete unless we were to note that one of the three wrongfully convicted men was a mere 20 days from being executed at one point. In fact, the only thing that prevented three innocent men from being murdered by the state was timing, as Ohio's death penalty statute was found unconstitutional in the1970s, when it would have applied to them (as opposed to a recent "botched" execution in Ohio that would seem to be quite cruel and unusual. We're waiting.). Think about that for a second if after the preceding paragraph you remain convinced of the infallibility of our system.
Clearly, if recent events in Missouri, a Dayton-Ohio-area Wal-Mart and in too many other locales to list are to mean anything, we’re in dire need of anything and everything that will bring transparency to our policing, our courts and our prisons. Our Constitution was set up based upon Sir William Blackstone's formulation that "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." Lately, I find myself wondering how we’re doing on that score.
But I would be remiss if I didn't mention what gives me hope from this case. As a board member of The Ohio Innocence Project this past year, I've seen the amazing students and staff at the University of Cincinnati Law School put in investment-banker hours in the selfless act of helping others who are suffering. I’ve seen lawyers who chose to work these same hours for well below their open market value, because they believe in something greater than themselves.
Brian Howe, who chose to come back and be an Ohio Innocence Project staff attorney after serving as a fellow in this program while at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, was standing at Ricky Jackson's side—as he has for many, many days—on the day he became a free man. Then there are the donors, in some cases those who are not personally wealthy, who have been the lifeblood of this essential organization.
The culture of I got mine so I'm done, of let’s see how many gazillions I can accrue just because I can, isn't present here. The spirit under which this country was founded, fighting for the common good, applying the Golden Rule to your interactions with others, this is what fills the hearts and minds of all those who helped make justice prevail in this case.
So see if you can watch Ricky Jackson—whose journey is far from over, he still needs our support—clad in his relaxed gray cardigan ,with his high-wattage smile, and not tear up as he's declared a free man and reenters a society very different from the one he left.
But also see if you can apply the lessons, both good and bad, that this case provides all of us, as we continue on our never-ending mission to become "that more perfect union."