After 39 years in prison, an epic tale of innocence found and bitterness lost
Ricky Jackson was the longest-serving innocent man in US history. Now, he's free of prison – and resentment.
*Editor's note: We've all overcome obstacles in life. How have you started over? Check out a special Facebook chat on forgiveness and fresh starts with reporter Jacob Baynham.
CLEVELAND - Three months and six days after he walked out of prison, Ricky Jackson has a decision to make.
The past few months have been full of decisions. Where to live? What kind of car to buy? When to get up? Who to see? How to dress? Every time he turns around another set of choices is staring back at him. Mr. Jackson is 58 years old – almost retirement age – but these decisions are as new to him as they would be to a teenager. For the past 39 years, the particulars of his life have been dictated by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Now, on the other side of the fence, the possibilities in a free life are overwhelming.
Not that every decision is major. Now, for instance, he’s sitting with friends in a Hungarian restaurant near his new apartment in a squat row of brick buildings in East Cleveland. He holds a menu that he’s been studying for a while. He’s leaning toward the pan-seared chicken until his friend urges him to try something unfamiliar – the chicken paprikash.
A waitress walks over.
If Jackson is preoccupied, he can be forgiven. He’s had a lot on his mind since he left prison. He’s been thinking about what to do with the remainder of his life. About what to make of the lie that landed him on death row at age 18, making him the longest-serving wrongfully convicted person in American history. It’s a lie that has tested the limits of human forgiveness and resilience. A lie that forced him to not let his circumstances, however tragic, define who he is.
It’s a lot for one man to process, but Jackson is trying to stay patient, making each decision on his own terms.
“Do you know what you want?” the waitress asks him.
He looks up and his weathered smile and arched eyebrows etch his face with the confidence of a man who has endured more than most.
“No,” he says. “I’m going to need more time.”
Time has been a capricious currency for Jackson. From where he sits now, it’s just a 12-minute drive to the street corner that marked an abrupt ricochet in the trajectory of his life. It’s not much to look at today – just a bus stop, a parking lot, and a crumbling Roman Catholic church at the corner of Petrarca Road and Stokes Blvd.
But 40 years ago it was home to the Fairmount Cut-Rate, a cramped corner store that sold milk, beer, chips, and cigarettes to the residents of a small neighborhood abutting the train tracks on Cleveland’s tattered eastern edge. The store belonged to Robert and Anna Robinson, a friendly couple who let their neighbors buy on credit when they didn’t have money.
The store also sold money orders, and every week a money order agent would come to collect the payments and settle the accounts. In 1975, that agent was Harry Franks, a big man with a kind face and a long chin. Franks traveled the same circuit every Monday, collecting receipts from 11 different shops. Fairmount Cut-Rate was his final stop.
On May 19, 1975, he arrived at the store after 3 p.m. with a leather valise containing blank money order notebooks and $429 in cash from his previous stop. It was a stuffy afternoon in East Cleveland. He walked in and greeted Mrs. Robinson – she remembered him as a quiet, courteous man – and positioned himself at a counter to complete his paperwork. A small air conditioner above the door rumbled some relief from the heat.
Franks finished his business and left the store. After he stepped outside, Robinson thought she heard a groan. A liquid splashed against the window. She walked to the door and saw Franks on the ground. A man was hitting him on the head with a pipe, trying to tear the bag from his hands. He wouldn’t let go. Another man pressed a .38-caliber revolver into Franks’s torso. The two shots sounded like fireworks.
Instinctively, Robinson rapped on the window.
“What’s going on?” she shouted.
The gunman fired through the door, shooting her in the neck.
By 8 the next morning, Franks would be on the Cuyahoga County coroner’s table. A pathologist would determine that he had been splashed with battery acid, burning his face and blinding his left eye. He’d been shot through the heart and liver. His grieving widow would wonder why he didn’t let go of his bag. He’d been mugged before and had always said it was foolish to resist.
But for now Franks was sprawled on the pavement, dying. Inside the store, Robinson was also on the floor. A dark pool of blood spilled around her head and under a milk crate.
People gathered outside. Someone dialed 911. The police arrived and rushed Robinson to the hospital, where an emergency surgery saved her life. Before someone could find a sheet, an officer took off his coat and put it over Franks’s face.
The cops cordoned off the scene and canvassed the crowd. Someone had seen the getaway car, a green Buick. Patrolman Robert Hassel approached a group of rowdy boys and asked if they had seen anything. They were joking and irreverent, and he almost passed them by. But then one of them spoke.
“Yes,” said a boy in glasses.
He said he’d seen it on his way home from school. He was a witness.
Mr. Hassel took his name, address, and phone number. And that quickly, a lie was set in motion that would take most of a lifetime to undo.
It’s impossible to say for certain what pushed Eddie Vernon to step forward that day. He was 12 years old, a well-mannered seventh-grader at Audubon Middle School. He was an average student – he did better in math than in English – and when he wasn’t delivering newspapers, he was playing football or baseball in the streets behind the Fairmount Cut-Rate.
Maybe he was seeking attention from an authority figure who would otherwise dismiss a poor black kid from a forgotten neighborhood. Maybe it was the impulse of an overactive imagination. Or just a loose word that snowballed out of control.
Whatever the reason, when detectives returned the next day, they came looking for Vernon. They met him at the Robinsons’ house, so the neighborhood wouldn’t know he was cooperating with the police. Mr. Robinson was also eager to find out who had killed Franks and shot his wife. He offered Vernon $50 to tell the police what he knew. It was a lot of money for Vernon – more than $200 today.
Detective Eugene Terpay, the lead investigator in the case, knew the neighborhood frowned on snitching. So he cultivated a relationship with the boy. He picked him up in an unmarked car, bought him burgers, and sped down the freeway with the sirens wailing. For a young kid like Vernon, it was thrilling.
We now know that Vernon did not witness the murder. That Detective Terpay, consciously or not, fed him details from the investigation until Vernon could describe to three separate juries in technicolored detail how he had watched two men murder Franks before his eyes, and then jump into a car and speed away.
But even that wasn’t enough. Terpay needed names. And within a few days Vernon gave him some – those of three young men from the neighborhood, close friends of each other. There was Wiley Bridgeman. Vernon said he drove the getaway car. His younger brother Ronnie was the man who hit Franks on the head. But the first name he said was the name of the shooter. That was Ricky. Ricky Jackson.
Jackson was a slender, athletic teen, the eldest of five kids. His mother was 14 when she had him in Mississippi. She brought him up to Cleveland, where she hoped people would be more accepting of a young mother. In 1975, the family lived in a ramshackle two-bedroom house with no telephone. Jackson slept on the couch.
Jackson remembers his childhood as normal, happy even. Sure, his stepfather hit him, but that wasn’t uncommon. Sure, they were poor, but his mother kept their clothes clean. Jackson was a bright student, but lost interest in school and dropped out in 10th grade. He washed dishes in a coffee shop for $1.90 an hour. When he wasn’t working, he walked the city. He liked to visit the art museum.
He dreamed of seeing the world, and the military seemed the surest way to do it. At age 17 he met a recruiter downtown and enlisted in the Marines. His mother was furious – the Vietnam War was still going on. He shipped out to basic training at Parris Island, S.C., but was honorably discharged after two months because of severe migraines. He returned to his mother’s house in Cleveland. He played basketball on city courts, dribbling between broken bottles and bricks. And for hours at a time he played chess with his friends Wiley and Ronnie, two brothers who lived down the road.
On May 19, 1975, Jackson woke up late and helped his mother clean the house. He watched his toddler nephew play on his tricycle in the street. Eventually, he wandered over to Ronnie’s house. They were walking to see another friend when someone told them a man had been shot at the Robinsons’ store. They went to the store, but there wasn’t much to see. A white sheet covered Franks’s body. They lingered awhile and then left.
Jackson and Ronnie didn’t give the murder much more thought until almost a week later, when weapon-wielding police burst into their homes before dawn on May 25. They searched both houses without warrants, but found no physical evidence connecting the young men to the crime. Nevertheless, they cuffed Jackson, Wiley, and Ronnie and took them to the city jail. That night would be the first of more than 14,000 that Jackson would spend behind bars.
Ronnie, Jackson, and Wiley were 17, 18, and 20, respectively. They made a pact. “We knew we were innocent,” Jackson says. “We were going to fight this.”
The police tried to crack them. They interrogated them separately, telling each one that the others had confessed. Jackson testified that when he refused to sign a confession, Terpay choked and kicked him, calling him a “stupid n–.” (Terpay denied this in court.) None of the boys accepted plea deals that could have reduced their sentences to a maximum of 15 years in prison. Instead, they prepared for trial.
Jackson’s trial took the better part of August. Dominic Del Balso, the prosecutor, built his case entirely on the testimony of Vernon, who was now 13. For his protection, the police put Vernon up at the Holiday Inn. He entered and left the courtroom through the judge’s chambers.
On the stand, Vernon’s testimony was riddled with inconsistencies. In police reports, Vernon said he saw the men attack Franks when he was walking into the store. At trial, he said it was after Franks left the Cut-Rate. Vernon said he saw Wiley driving the green car before the shooting and Wiley waved to him. Then he said he hadn’t seen the car before the crime. He said he was 50 feet away when the shooting happened. Then he was eight feet away. Jackson’s attorney grew exasperated.
“Do you tell lies very often, Edward?” he asked.
“Not often,” Vernon said.
Seven youths from the neighborhood testified that they’d heard Vernon say Jackson hadn’t done it. Jackson’s mother accounted for his whereabouts on the day of the crime. The defense pointed out that Ronnie and Jackson would be absurd to return to the scene if they had just killed Franks.
Jackson took the stand, subjecting himself to attacks on his intelligence, work ethic, and family. In addition to cold-blooded murder, Mr. Del Balso falsely accused him of being kicked out of the military, stealing to support his family, and mooching off of relatives. Throughout the trial, Jackson’s head throbbed with migraines. Sometimes he couldn’t hear anything above the ringing in his ears.
Before a frantic closing argument, in which he struggled to recite all the case’s flaws in his allotted time, Jackson’s attorney, Robert Loeb, asked the judge to dismiss the case for failing to meet the burden of proof.
“The only witness linking Ricky Jackson to this terrible crime is a 13-year-old boy,” he said, “whose testimony was just absolutely rampant with minor contradictions.”
The judge overruled Mr. Loeb’s request, and the decision went to the jury. By now Wiley had already been convicted on the same evidence. Later Ronnie was found guilty, too. Jackson knew his trial hadn’t gone well. “It was all but a done deal,” he says. When the jury read its verdict, he felt numb.
“I didn’t shed a tear or anything,” he says. “The judge asked if I had anything to say, and I said, ‘No.’ All I was trying to do was concentrate on what lay ahead. What I was about to confront.”
When Jackson returned to court for sentencing, he sat through a lecture from Judge J. Gareth Hitchcock Jr. about counting his blessings rather than magnifying his grievances. The judge said the case’s evidence was “of a remarkably high quality,” and “the likelihood of the jury making any mistake in its verdict is virtually nil.”
At the end of the hearing, the judge ordered that Jackson be taken to prison and put to death by electric chair on May 29, 1976. Jackson remembers the drowning, sinking feeling. “I’m 18,” he says. “How do you process that? As far as you know, this is the final word on your life. This is the final chapter, before your book even gets started. This is it.”
Two months later, Jackson boarded a bus bound for the penitentiary in Lucasville, Ohio. Handcuffed and chained, he stared out the window as the miles rolled by, each one bringing him closer to his execution.
“It was like this was the last of everything for me,” he says.
Death row at Lucasville was a prison within a prison. The inmates weren’t allowed outside, nor could they have contact with other prisoners. But Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers were held in the same cell row. They talked to each other when they could, mostly during the one-hour periods twice weekly when they were let out to shower and exercise.
“We were trying to devise a strategy,” Jackson says. “Trying to figure a way out of there.”
The biggest challenge was mental. “You had to devise ways of keeping yourself sane,” he says. He read a lot – science fiction, mostly – and prayed. He used his imagination to create a world inside his head, a place he could retreat to that he understood. Jackson knew the three had the truth on their side, but sometimes it felt like the prison walls were made of sturdier stuff.
Appeals pushed back Jackson’s execution date. Wiley won himself a retrial in 1977, but a second guilty verdict broke him. “Send me to the chair,” he told the judge. “I don’t want to be reminded each day of my innocence.”
In 1978, the US Supreme Court deemed Ohio’s death penalty unconstitutional, and the sentences of everyone on death row were commuted to life in prison. Jackson and the Bridgemans were released into Lucasville’s general population, which brought its own horrors. The prison was notoriously violent. Attacks usually happened in the chow hall, so they learned to avoid it. They often saw blood on the floors and walls. Ronnie once watched a man be stabbed to death after he bumped into an inmate coming out of the dining room.
In 1984, Wiley and Ronnie were sent to different prisons. Ronnie still recalls the sting of their separation. “I was one of the loneliest people on earth,” he says. They’d been in prison for nine years and wouldn’t be together again for another 30.
Wiley was released on parole in 2002, and then sent back to prison before his exoneration in 2014. Ronnie was paroled in 2003 after serving 27 years. He changed his name to Kwame Ajamu. “They sent Ronnie Bridgeman to die,” he says. “And that’s what I did. I let him die.”
After 13 years, Jackson was sent to Lebanon Correctional Institution, where his security level was reduced. He was establishing in prison the reputation that he’d lost in the free world. He refereed basketball games because everyone trusted him to be fair. He earned a degree in horticulture and worked in a greenhouse. He taught difficult dogs to become suitable pets.
Most of all, he sought to maintain a sense of humanity in a place where it was hard to find. “I tried to be the kind of person my mother wanted me to be,” he says. “I was a guy in prison. But they were never going to make me a prisoner.”
From Lebanon he went to Ross Correctional Institution. Then he crossed the street to Chillicothe, the nicest of them all, where he could be outdoors. Then he went to Grafton Correctional, and finally to Grafton Reintegration Center. Each prison is a pin in the map of his history.
That history was punctuated with parole hearings, too – five in all. The parole board looked for remorse and change – hard qualities for an innocent man to illustrate. Jackson expressed his sadness for Franks and his family, while maintaining that he had no role in his murder. They extended his sentence every time, each year another brick in his fate.
Jackson’s darkest moment came in 2008. He knew his mother’s health was failing – he had spoken to her on the phone after she left the hospital. His brother said he’d bring her to visit, but never did.
“And then I got that dreaded phone call,” Jackson remembers. The thought of it brings fresh tears. Of all the indignities he’d endured, of all the humiliations, deprivations, and traumas, losing his mother while he was locked away was almost too cruel to bear.
“That was my most hopeless moment,” he says. “I just wanted to explode.”
But he remembered what his mother told him on the phone the last time he heard her voice. “You’re going to get out of this,” she said. “But you’ve got to stay focused.”
One way Jackson focused was by pursuing any avenue that might lead to his release. Another inmate told him about the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP), a group that represents prisoners who claim they were wrongfully convicted. In 2006, Jackson wrote them a letter. They agreed to take his case, but it didn’t look hopeful.
“It’s pretty amazing it stayed open as long as it did,” says Brian Howe, the OIP staff attorney who represented Jackson. “There was no DNA. There was no physical evidence.” The state had lost the cup that contained the battery acid. And as unreliable as Vernon’s testimony appeared, he refused to talk.
OIP operates out of a cluttered corner of the University of Cincinnati College of Law. Like many innocence projects, it relies on law students to investigate cases and explore legal avenues to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners. The students assigned to Jackson’s case – more than a dozen over eight years – wouldn’t let the case be closed. “It stayed open because students had talked to Ricky,” Mr. Howe says. “He’s so compelling and sincere that they really believed in him.”
But to Howe, a former OIP student himself, the case still lived or died on one man – Eddie Vernon. If he was lying, what could bring him forward, decades later, to recant his testimony?
“After as long as it’s been,” Howe says, “99 times out of 100, a person in that situation is going to take it to their grave. The damage was pretty well done.” Even if he did come forward, a judge might be suspicious. “Either he was lying then, or he’s lying now,” Howe says.
In 2011, OIP got some help from Kyle Swenson, a Cleveland journalist who had written an article for Cleveland Scene magazine about the inconsistencies in Vernon’s testimony and the likelihood that Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers were innocent. Vernon refused to talk to Mr. Swenson. But two years later, when his pastor asked him about the story, Vernon burst into tears. He was ready, he said. It was time to step forward again, this time to tell the truth.
So last November, 39 years after the original trial, Jackson and Vernon were in a Cleveland courtroom together again. Vernon was terrified of being sent to prison for perjury. But the need to come clean now outweighed his fear.
Vernon testified that he hadn’t seen Franks die. He said the police fed him information – the battery acid, the caliber of the gun – and coerced him into testifying. He said they got mad whenever he got cold feet. They threatened to send his parents to jail. They controlled him with fear. And once told, Vernon’s story became a monster of its own volition.
“They were lies,” he testified.
“It was all lies?” the prosecutor asked.
“They were lies,” he said.
After Vernon’s recantation, Jackson took the stand. “Regardless of what happens here today,” he said, “somebody heard the truth for once. I spent 39 years of my life paying for something I didn’t do.”
In light of Vernon’s recantation, the state withdrew their case. The hearing ended on a Tuesday. That Friday, 39 years, 5 months, and 27 days after his arrest, Ricky Jackson walked out of the courtroom unshackled. He joined Ronnie and Wiley for a tearful, celebratory meal at Red Lobster.
It’s been a bitter winter in Cleveland, but Jackson likes to keep the windows open in his second-floor apartment. It’s a modest place with dark wood floors, new furniture, a few houseplants, and a fish tank awaiting fish. The walls are empty but for a small constellation of family photos that orbit a picture of his mother.
On a recent Friday morning, Jackson is wearing bluejeans with a set of keys jangling from his belt loop. His burly arms strain the sleeves of his gray T-shirt. The wattage of his smile makes him look younger than his years. He feels younger, too, like he just walked out of a time capsule. “I don’t feel those years like I actually lived them,” he says.
Simple things still thrill him the most. Getting food from the freezer whenever he wants. Turning on the TV. Having his apartment smell like he wants it to. Cleaning up. Or not. Going on a walk at night. “I live a normal, boring life,” he says. “And that’s how I want it. I’m never going to be sad or in fear again.”
Jackson’s schedule is busy with speaking engagements at universities and nonprofits. He meets with friends like Raymond Towler, a fellow exoneree he knew in prison who served 29 years before OIP helped free him in 2010. But otherwise Jackson keeps a simple routine. He gets up early, works out, takes his vitamins, drinks a protein shake. He showers and checks his calendar, which he keeps on his new smart phone. He eats breakfast with his girlfriend. When she goes to work, he cleans the house. “It’s my way of meditating,” he says. He folds his socks like a military man. “I like order,” he admits. “I’m into order.”
Jackson’s release was met with some ambivalence by Dominic Del Balso, the man who prosecuted him in 1975. Now 70 years old and retired, Del Balso says the case doesn’t trouble him. “I did my job,” he says. “I thought he was guilty. I thought Vernon testified correctly. Why should it bother me? It’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s not proof beyond all doubt.”
Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers count among a record 125 people who were exonerated in 2014, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The trio will be compensated for the years they spent in prison. A court recently ordered that Jackson be paid a little more than $1 million – half of the total tax-free sum Ohio will eventually give him. Jackson can also sue for lost wages and punitive damages. But for now, he lives on money OIP helped raise. He knows he can’t buy back his youth, the career he could have had, or the kids he might have fathered. But the money is an important reparation.
“For the first time in any of our lives, we have the opportunity to do things we wanted to do,” he says. For Jackson, that means seeing some of the world, and buying a place with enough land for a garden and some dogs.
Jackson is trying to put his experience behind him. Prison left its scars and Jackson says he and the Bridgeman brothers all have struggled with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. But the experience also shaped him. “Prison didn’t make me who I am, but the ordeal did,” he says. “I like the person that I turned out to be.”
People are confounded by Jackson’s equanimity. But when the conversation turns to Eddie Vernon, Jackson says perhaps the most confounding thing of all.
“Even when I was in prison I feel like I had a better life,” he says. “He couldn’t have a life. He had three ghosts following him around. Despite what people say, without him, we’d still be in prison. He’s the one who put us there, and he was the one who eventually got us out. All is forgiven in my book.”
On a cold, clear morning in February, Eddie Vernon sits in a pew at his church, the Emmanuel Christian Center, as a Narcotics Anonymous group meets downstairs. He wears black sneakers and a collared shirt beneath his jacket. He’s 52 years old now, a short man, with gray in his goatee and a job at a 7-Eleven. He doesn’t have a car, so he takes two buses to work, leaving his house before 4 a.m. By the time he’s home, all he can do is eat and pray before he goes to sleep.
“I don’t even follow the Cavs,” he says, referring to Cleveland’s beloved basketball team.
Vernon still wears glasses – thick ones, with black frames – and when he starts talking about what happened 40 years ago, it’s not long before he removes them to wipe his eyes.
“I feel so bad about how I did those guys,” he says. “They said they forgave me, but how can they forgive me for taking away all those years?”
The past few months have been a season of redemption for Vernon, a spring of forgiveness, but he’s still conflicted about his role in jailing three innocent men for the majority of their lives. The way he sees it, he told a lie, but the police and justice system are guilty, too.
He recalls that warm May afternoon 40 years ago, when he was on the school bus with his classmates. The windows were open and kids were laughing. Then, as the bus crested a hill – POW! POW! – two shots cracked through the air, and then another. The kids saw a white man gasping and gurgling on the sidewalk. Vernon says a friend told him he thought Jackson did it. Vernon thought he should tell that to the police. But when his story swelled into an eyewitness account, he thinks the police willingly overlooked its holes.
“They wanted a conviction,” he says. “They went through any means necessary to get one – and that was me.”
Vernon testified in all three trials. Afterward, the detectives advised him to leave town. He went to live with an aunt and uncle in Princeton, N.J. He was bitterly lonely. Terpay told him to never talk about the murder, and if anybody started asking questions, Vernon should let him know. “They put a lot of fear in me,” he says.
When he returned to Cleveland, Vernon floundered. “The more I tried to get ahead, the more I fell back down,” he says. He started drinking and developed a crack addiction that he battled for 17 years. He had a stroke. His kidneys were failing, and his blood pressure spiked. He spent time in prison.
When he got out, Christianity saved him. He found peace in the church, although he was terrified by the Ninth Commandment – Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. It seemed written for him. But Vernon found a God who offered forgiveness. And two months ago, in this very church, he met and hugged Jackson, who forgave him, too. Now Vernon is trying to forgive himself.
“I can’t take all of it back. I know I can’t,” he says, hitting his knee in a moment of anguish. “I keep living with it. It’s like I can’t let it go. I know that they’re free and everything, but why didn’t this happen years ago? Why?”
Vernon recently moved back to the old neighborhood. It’s even more run-down than before. The Bridgemans’ house is gone. The site of Jackson’s old home is now an empty lot surrounded by a rickety fence. Drafty houses with icicles on the gutters line the narrow, potholed streets. “It looks like a bomb dropped in there,” Vernon says.
But in some ways it’s fitting that he’s back where it all began. Vernon plans to meet Jackson for dinner soon – a simple meal of chicken and greens at his pastor’s house. It will be the third time he’s seen Jackson since his release. Unlikely companions though they may be, the two men share an uncommon history. In 40 years of hardship, they’ve both had to come to terms with the lie that bound them.
And now, 40 years later, they’re both finally free.