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The triumph of innocence

Ricky Jackson's four decades in prison for a crime he didn't commit is the story of injustice, perseverance, and, most of all, grace.

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    RICKY JACKSON AT HOME IN CLEVELAND.
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Imagine where you were 10 years ago, in 2005. Then go back 10 years before that. And 10 more. People had computers in the mid-1980s, but they weren’t connected. Ronald Reagan was president.

You’d have to go back still another 10 years – to 1975 – to a time of pay phones and Gerald Ford and Patty Hearst. That was the year Ricky Jackson went to prison. Ten years is not just a calendar notation. It is 10 times that the seasons cycle. Decades in which babies are born and lives change. 

The world can shock and amaze us on each of the 365 days of each of those years. Multiply that by 40. That is the number of days Mr. Jackson spent in prison. He was innocent the entire time. You’ll meet this remarkable man in a cover story that is as compelling as it is troubling, as heartbreaking as it is redeeming. Parts of this story might be difficult. It involves robbery and murder and injustice. But stick with it and you will find yourself thinking of Jean Valjean or the biblical Joseph.

When you start reading Jacob Baynham’s narrative (click here), I suspect you won’t be able to stop. I couldn’t – not through the rush to judgment for a murder Jackson did not commit, not through the long years of imprisonment, the multiple appeals, the dogged determination of Jackson and his two friends who were also convicted to prove their innocence. Year after year, law students at the University of Cincinnati’s Ohio Innocence Project worked the case. Then came a breakthrough story by journalist Kyle Swenson in Cleveland Scene magazine. Finally, in 2013, the conscience of a key witness stirred.

Last November, after the longest period of false imprisonment in current history, Jackson was freed. But that was not the end of the story. If you have ever wondered about the word grace, you’ll see it defined in what happened next.

I called Jacob, who has written about other prisoners who have been unjustly imprisoned. How, I asked, do Jackson and others like him endure. “This is the interesting part,” he said. “To survive in prison, they have to let go of their emotions. They can’t despair; they can’t hope. They have to focus on the present. They are forced into a kind of monastic middle way. They saw people consumed with anger and watched it destroy them. They had to achieve equanimity.”

Imagine knowing you were the victim of injustice. Advanced as you might think you are, could you control your outrage? Could you do that for 40 years?

All sorts of social critiques can and should be drawn from cases of false imprisonment. Was racial profiling a factor? Can we make sure the justice system is really just? Something more also is worth considering: Innocence often seems fragile, ephemeral, naive. The world is always ready to teach it a lesson, to tell it to get real, move on, shake it off. What you’ll see in the Ricky Jackson story is how powerful and triumphal innocence can be.

John Yemma can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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