Ricky Jackson, now 59 years old, has spent the last 39 years of his life in prison for a 1975 murder that he and two of his friends didn't commit.
This week's hearing was held after motions filed by the Ohio Innocence Project on Jackson's behalf. The conviction, as a 2011 Scene investigation that led to the Ohio Innocence Project's involvement detailed, rested on a lie that served as the sole piece of evidence that sent Jackson, then 18 years old, and brothers Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman, then 17 and 20 years old respectively, to death row.
The lone witness at the time was a 13-year-old boy on a school bus. After Scene's 2011 investigation, that witness, Edward Vernon, would eventually recant his testimony, admitting he lied under police pressure.
In March of this year, armed with a sworn affidavit from Vernon, the Ohio Innocence Project filed a motion for a new trial.
This afternoon, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty entered the courtroom, making his first appearance in the two-day hearing. It all came down to the closing arguments, and McGinty said the state would drop its opposition to Jackson's motion for a new trial and would dismiss the charges against the three altogether.
Jackson will walk out of jail on Friday a free man. His 39 years would make the longest wrongfully incarcerated case in Ohio history, according to the Innocence Project, and one of the longest in the nation.
A quick catch-up on the case from our March update on the filings:
On May 19, 1975, a money order salesmen named Harold Franks was attacked and killed outside a corner store south of University Circle. Not long after the crime, the Bridgemans and Jackson were arrested. Police produced a 13-year-old boy from the neighborhood named Eddie Vernon. He claimed he saw Jackson and Ronnie Bridgeman attack Franks, then drive off in a car with Wiley.
No physical evidence connected the three to the shooting — no DNA or fingerprints, no clothing matching the description of what the assailants were wearing, no link to a .38-caliber pistol used in the crime, no connection to the two-tone green car pegged as the getaway vehicle. The money orders stolen from Franks were never located.
In our 2011 feature story, friends recalled being with the boys at the time of the shooting. Also, police records showed informants told police the robbery was the work of known stick-up men. Still, law enforcement never followed up on those leads after the arrests.
Cleveland Police and Cuyahoga County prosecutors hung their whole case on Eddie Vernon's testimony, even though his accounts were pocked with inconsistencies and errors. In the course of four separate trials, defense attorneys repeatedly attacked his credibility. Prosecutors countered: why would the boy lie?
In this week's court filings, an affidavit from Vernon finally gives the answer.
“I think I just wanted to be helpful,” Vernon states in the affidavit. “You have to understand I was 12 years old at the time. I thought I was doing the right thing.”
In the recent filing, Vernon admits he never saw the actual incident. He approached the crime scene with other onlookers after the shooting. Vernon heard a friend mention the Bridgemans and Jackson, although the friend hadn't seen the crime. Vernon, who was friendly with the corner store owner, volunteered the information.
Police put Vernon before a line-up that included Ricky Jackson. The boy didn't identify anyone. “I thought that was it and I would just go home,” he said. “I couldn't understand how the other boys would still be under arrest after I didn't pick them out.”
But the detective investigating the case took the boy into a back room. “He got really loud and angry and started yelling at me and calling me a liar. He was slamming his hands on the table, and pushing things around, calling me this and that. I was frightened and crying. You know it's a scary thing for someone that young.”
Vernon says he was threatened by police. “The detective said that I was too young to go to jail, but he would arrest my parents for perjury because I was backing out. My mom was sick at that time, and that really scared me. I didn't want my parents to get in trouble over this.”
The boy then went back out into the hallway and identified Ricky Jackson. He later testified against all three defendants.
The case snowballed from there.