2015 was a Record Year for Exonerations Around the Country, but None of Them Came in Cuyahoga County

In November 2014, Cleveland notched a grim accomplishment.

 That month, under a charcoal grey morning sky, Ricky Jackson walked out of the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland, frozen breath exploding out of a wide smile, while dozens of news cameras flashed.

 In 1975, Jackson and two friends — Kwame Ajamu (formerly Ronnie Bridgeman) and Wiley Bridgeman — were arrested by Cleveland police and charged by Cuyahoga County prosecutors for murder. It took 39 years for the legal system to reverse course, realizing that the three black eastsiders had been shipped on a one-way ticket to Death Row (they were later handed life sentences) on bogus testimony.

 At nearly four decades, the Jackson-Bridgeman case was the longest wrongful conviction to end in exoneration in U.S. history — an ugly achievement that made international headlines. The three exonerations were also among the 125 fixed convictions in 2014, a record year.

 This month, the National Registry of Exonerations, run by the University of Michigan Law School, released the figures for 2015: wrongful convictions had another record-busting 12 months. Still, the Jackson-Bridgeman case — and Cuyahoga County — held onto the ignominious title for longest conviction. A deep look at the numbers also shows that wrongful convictions are still a problem staring Cleveland in the face.

 The recent data shows that in 2015, 149 defendants were exonerated in 29 states. A defendant released last year spent an average of 14-and-a-half-years in prison for a crime he or she didn't commit.

 No Cuyahoga County cases reached exoneration in 2015. Only two from Ohio — a 1992 Richland County murder case and a 1997 Summit County assault case — were among the recent pack. It's a surprise more local cases weren't reversed in the last year considering the county's track record. According to the National Registry, 17 defendants convicted in Cuyahoga County courtrooms have been exonerated between 1994 and today.

 The lack of 2015 exonerations in the Cleveland area is also notable considering the Cuyahoga County prosecutor office's apparent interest in getting ahead of bad cases.

 In April 2014, prosecutor Tim McGinty set up a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) within the office.  The county was on the leading edge here. Across the country, only nine jurisdictions had CIUs in 2013, with that number growing to 14 in 2014. As in-house specialists kicking the tires on convictions, CIUs are tasked with investigating all claims of innocence or suspicions of wrongful prosecution.

 "We want to convict the guilty, not the innocent," McGinty said when the unit was formed. "So if we learn we have convicted the wrong person, we want to correct it. We always want to have open ears on the subject of innocence."

 CIUs are exploding nationally: 2015 counted 24 CIUs in jurisdictions across the U.S. Experts say these units are powering the rising number of exonerations; to date, CIUs have pushed forward 151 exonerations, including 58 in 2015.

 Yet at the same time, the mere presence of a unit doesn't mean a jurisdiction is overturning convictions at a rapid clip. Or even at all.

 "As of this week, the CIU had received 88 requests for review since it was launched," Cuyahoga County prosecutor spokesman Joe Frolik tells Scene. "Sixteen made it through the initial screening process. Eight of those are still pending. To date, the CIU has not recommended an exoneration."

 According to the National Registry, this isn't rare. "Half of all CIUs have not been involved in any exonerations — and four others worked on one only — including several that have existed for three to five years," the registry's 2015 report says. "The performance of these CIUs has been highly variable and some have been criticized as mere window dressing."

 Frolik declined to offer specifics on the eight cases currently under review by the Cuyahoga County CIU. But at least one case is currently sitting in the local court system that could represent another significant exoneration for the county. It's also one that the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office is fighting.

 In February 1995, three men — Laurese Glover, Eugene Johnson and Derrick Wheatt — were arrested for the murder of a 19-year-old on an East Cleveland street. At trial, police produced a witness who claimed she'd seen one of the defendants fire on the victim, as well as forensics tests that claimed to have detected gun-powder residue on the defendants and in the SUV they were driving at the time. Despite their claims of innocence, the men were convicted.

 But as the years passed, new details began to emerge for the East Cleveland Three. The witness changed her story, telling attorneys now she had not spotted any of the defendants fire on the victim, and that she'd only testified as such at prompting from police. The chemical tests used to detect gunpowder were also largely discredited due to their tendency to create false-positive results.

 But most important: Defense attorneys for the first time gained access to the full police file. This included exculpatory evidence that should have shifted the investigators' attention away from the three men, including two previously undisclosed witnesses who saw and recognized the actual gunman. This material was never provided to defense attorneys for the original trial.

 Last year, the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) was able to win bond for the three. The state has since fought the East Cleveland Three's efforts at exoneration, and their attorneys argued for a new trial before an appeals court in January. (A judge had previously granted a motion for a new trial; McGinty's office appealed that decision. They're still waiting for the results from the 8th District's decision.)

"These men have insisted they were innocent for 18 years," says Brian Howe, one of the Ohio Innocence Project attorneys working the case.  "Never wavered. In that time, the case against them has fallen apart, and new evidence of their innocence has been found by the defense. They deserve a fair trial, one where the jury gets to hear all the facts. If they get that chance, we are confident they will be vindicated."