These three men were picked up on the street of Ohio in 1975 at the ages of 17, 19, and 20, wrongfully charged for offense they did not commit, and sent into prison. For the past 40 years, they have lived all their life incarcerated, destroying whatever dream or opportunities they might have had. Read the story of Ronnie Bridgeman 17 who later changed his name to Kwame Ajamu, Jackson 19, and Wiley Bridgeman who was 20 when they were arrested.
Having just exonerated Kwame Ajamu, Judge Pamela Barker stepped down from the bench on Tuesday, leaned across the defense table and gave him a hug.
It had taken nearly 40 years, but Ajamu was no longer a convicted murderer.
Moments earlier, Barker had dismissed his charges and county Prosecutor Tim McGinty had conveyed a message through an assistant that Ajamu; his brother, Wiley Bridgeman; and their friend Ricky Jackson “have been the victims of a terrible injustice.”
The three had been convicted and sentenced to death in the slaying of a businessman outside on a corner store on a warm spring day in 1975. The case against them unraveled last year when the prosecution’s star witness recanted his testimony.
The witness, Eddie Vernon, was 12 when Harry Franks was killed and 13 when he testified against the three men at their trials in 1975. Vernon said in court last month and in an affidavit that he had been coerced by Cleveland police.
Ajamu, then known as Ronnie Bridgeman, was 17 when he was sent to death row. Jackson was 19, and Wiley Bridgeman was 20. Their death sentences were later commuted to life terms.
Ajamu was released from prison in 2003. Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman had been imprisoned until recently and were freed Nov. 21.
McGinty’s office had said little about the dismissals. But on Tuesday, he absolved all three of their crimes and said he would not oppose any claims of innocence, which will speed the civil process by which the men are compensated for having been wrongfully incarcerated.
The prosecutor’s concession seemed to astonish longtime Cleveland civil rights and defense attorney Terry Gilbert, who represents Ajamu and Wiley Bridgeman.
“To recognize an injustice … it gives me faith and hope in this criminal justice system that good things can come out of it from time to time,” Gilbert told Barker.
Ajamu, 57, has rebuilt his life. He is married to a woman he met in downtown Cleveland in 2003 when she couldn’t find the right bus and he rode with her to her destination. They married the next year after she proposed to him. Ajamu called Lashawn Ajamu his best friend and greatest supporter.
After Barker dismissed the charges, Kwame Ajamu told the handful of people in the courtroom that he was overjoyed and that “this room is lit with the truth.”
“It’s my hope going forward that we don’t have to wait another 40 years for the next Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman, Ricky Jackson,” he said. “It’s my hope from this day on we can stop ignoring what is obvious in the criminal justice system and move forward with peace and love.”
After the hearing, Ajamu credited Kyle Swenson, a writer for Scene Magazine, who in 2011 dug into the men’s stories and exposed how justice had been subverted.
Ajamu said he hoped one day to meet with Eddie Vernon, who is now 52, so he can tell him he understands what happened and has no ill will toward him. Ajamu said his full exoneration finally makes him feel free to go anywhere he wants, anytime he’d like.
“I can even go back to being Ronnie Bridgeman, but I’m not,” he said. “They killed Ronnie Bridgeman. They killed his spirit. They killed everything he believed in, everything he ever wanted. I wanted to be something, too. I could have been a lawyer possibly. I could have been Barack Obama. Who knows?”
Story credit: Associated Press via ABC News