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What the Boy Saw 

A child's testimony put three men on death row. The neighborhood saw it differently

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Vernon's account was corroborated by Charles Loper, an old man who lived in a home attached to the back of the Cut-Rate. A retired sanitation worker, Loper testified that on the day of the crime he was sitting on the porch watching his grandson play in the small yard when he saw Vernon get off the bus and walk down Fairhill. A moment later, the shooting happened, at which point Loper grabbed his grandson and ran inside without glimpsing any of the assailants.

***

Despite the apparent smoking gun, there were problems with Vernon's account — issues that popped up in the first pass through the legal process, and others that are more obscure and ultimately unresolved even today.

The main issue was whether or not the boy was at the scene at all. In the original police report, none of the witnesses — including Loper — mention Vernon's presence. Despite Loper's testimony, a number of Vernon's classmates testified in court that he had not caught a city bus home that day, but stayed at school later and rode the school bus home with the rest of the kids. The children claimed that the riders all watched from the bus as it idled at the light on Cedar and Fairhill, while a white man struggled with two black men outside the Cut-Rate. Some said they'd heard a shot. The bus then moved up Cedar and dropped the students off at East 108th, from which point they went to the store to see what had happened.

The boy's testimony was in direct contradiction to Karen Smith's account. The 16-year-old girl also climbed up on the witness stand for each trial. Smith knew the Bridgeman boys and Jackson from the neighborhood; she'd even been in the same sixth-grade class as Ronnie. According to her testimony, the two young men she passed outside the Cut-Rate moments before the crime were not from the neighborhood — they were not Ronnie or Ricky. Mrs. Robinson, who recovered from the shooting, also knew the boys from the neighborhood, but couldn't testify that they were the assailants.

Certain details in Vernon's telling also failed to gel. Most dramatically, the boy's courtroom testimony differs wildly from the statement he gave police on May 25. On that afternoon, he viewed a lineup with seven suspects, including Wiley and Ricky; Vernon failed to ID anyone, but later that day told police Wiley and Ricky were the ones who committed the crime.

In the document police typed up after that ID, Vernon claimed to have been getting off the bus when he saw a car "between me and curb [sic]." Behind the wheel was Wiley, with Ricky and a third individual the boy identifies as "Vincent."

Continuing this account, Vernon said he saw Ricky and Vincent waiting outside the Cut-Rate as "a white guy got out of his car and was walking toward the store," then was attacked. Later, the boy testified that he'd seen the attack while Franks was leaving the property, not arriving.

At the trials, when confronted about the divergence between the courtroom account and the original statement, Vernon claimed he told detectives the document was wrong, but that they refused to correct it.

The play-by-play of the testimony revealed inconsistencies. Vernon testified in one case that he hadn't spoken to Loper right before the shooting, yet later testified that he had spoken with the old man. The original written statement says the boy first saw the green car as he was getting off the bus. Later, at a juvenile court hearing for Ronnie that summer, Vernon said the first time he saw the green car was after the shots were fired, when he walked down to the corner of Fairhill and Petrarca to watch the assailants run away.

But the story changed again: In court, he testified he'd first seen the green car from the bus while both were turning from Cedar to Fairhill.

And again: In Jackson's trial, Vernon said he'd seen the green car, weeks before the crime, parked outside of the Bridgeman house — a fact never before mentioned or verified. Similarly, Vernon originally testified that he couldn't recall what the defendants were wearing that day, yet in a later court appearance he recalled one had been wearing a colorful flowered shirt — a fact Mrs. Robinson had testified to.

Vernon's story also changed in terms of where he was when he viewed the crime — an important distinction. In some testimony, the boy told jurors he was walking down Fairhill toward the corner of Petrarca when he saw Franks doused and struck with a stick; he claimed he then turned around and ran back to the bus stop, where he hid behind the shelter's wall. From there, he said, he saw Jackson shoot Franks twice, then turn the gun on Mrs. Robinson.

But Vernon also testified that he saw the first two shots up close near the corner, then ran back to the bus shelter, where he watched the third shot fired.

Loper's own courtroom account also contained details that didn't fit with other evidence. First, he testified that he watched the boy get off the bus and walk up Fairhill across the front of Loper's lawn. That house was connected to the Cut-Rate, so had Vernon crossed the lawn, he would have been mere steps away from the front door of the store. But by Vernon's own testimony, he didn't get that close.

Loper also told jurors he'd heard three shots, then saw the white man fall to the ground. But according to all other accounts — including the medical examiner's — Franks was thrown onto the ground, then shot.

But perhaps the most jarring aspect of Edward Vernon's testimony was that he was paid for it — a fact at least one jury did not know about. The store owner, Robert Robinson, paid Vernon $50 for his courtroom presence; Robinson left this detail out of his original testimony, revealing it only after the boy was confronted about the payment on the witness stand.

There was also an outright discrepancy over when the deal was struck: Robinson said he offered the boy the money after Vernon had already ID'd Wiley and Ricky; Vernon testified he was promised the money the day after the crime was committed, before Wiley and Ricky were even named suspects. It also came out in court that Vernon had aided Robinson before: He once offered the boy money to point out the house where a shoplifter lived.

Inconsistencies, details recalled only later, jumbled timelines, the $50 payoff — Vernon's testimony was problematic, and at least one trial judge openly stated out of earshot of the jury that he felt the boy was "not truthful."

Even Vernon's own family questioned his testimony. When he took the witness stand, Vernon's father seemed to doubt the boy's account. His sister Darlene sank a key piece of his testimony: She told jurors in Ronnie's case that she'd seen the defendant walk with Ricky Jackson from the neighborhood to the store after news broke about the shooting.

Darlene continued that her brother was lying when he stated that Ronnie tried to avoid having his image caught by the TV camera. The news crews showed up after Vernon himself had left the area with their father — he couldn't have seen what he claimed, his sister said.

Toward the end of Darlene's testimony, one of Ronnie's defense attorneys confronted the girl about a conversation she'd had with a prosecutor in the hallway.

"Darlene, isn't it a fact that you did tell [the prosecutor] that Eddie lied?"

"I told him that all kids lied," she answered.

"That Eddie lied?"

"I said all kids lie."

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