Eugene Johnson is walking north along Strathmore Avenue in East Cleveland, just a stone's throw from his childhood home, a familiar street in one sense but, now, an entirely different universe in another. It's a hot afternoon in September, and families are gathering on front porches as children meander home from school. Those who lived here in the early 1990s surely would have seen Johnson dribbling a basketball down the street and getting some hoops in with his buds after classes — or during, for that matter.
"After what was done to me, I kinda lost that thrill," he says of the game.
What was done to Johnson was also done to his friends, Derrick Wheatt and Laurese Glover. Friends for decades, they're joined forever as a single entity: the East Cleveland 3. They've returned to Strathmore today, rewinding their lives back to February 1995. Since their release from prison last year, they say, each of them has avoided this place, the intersection of Strathmore and Manhattan. They didn't shoot that guy; they should have never been caught up in that whole mess.
"This is where the nightmare begins," Johnson says, while cars breeze toward the stop sign under the bridge. As the three of them point out the precise location of the shooting, they can't help but comment on how much the street has changed since then. Wheatt, half-joking in a quiet voice, compares the neighborhood to what you might see on The Walking Dead, a post-apocalyptic "after" picture of what happens to a place when everything falls apart.
A lot of things fell apart in East Cleveland over the years, as gun violence became a motif in a city struggling with drugs and poverty and a declining population. The sound of gunfire on a Friday night back then could be anything: a gang dispute, a crack deal gone south, the sort of high-wattage domestic disturbance that might explode behind the walls of any home in this country.
But why was a man named Clifton Hudson shot and killed here on Feb. 10, 1995? It's difficult to say. Long-hidden evidence flashes scant light on potential leads; the investigation into his murder stopped short of the truth.
Rather, three teenagers were arrested and later convicted. A story was crafted on the word of a nerve-wracked 14-year-old walking home from school that day, and the records behind the investigation were kept from the public view for many years. Those teenagers became the East Cleveland 3 and, many years later, when the East Cleveland 3 were men, once everything got sorted out, their journey became a symbol for the rot within our criminal justice system.
"It was crazy how it happened," Glover says now. "Throughout the years, I always said it was written. It was meant to happen to us."
"We was just some carefree kids growing up in the inner-city," Wheatt says.
"Wrong place, wrong time," Johnson adds, shaking his head.
The sun was setting early on the evening of Feb. 10, 1995, and Glover was cruising with his friends. He had just bought a '79 Blazer, a honking beast of American metal. In the mid-90s, you couldn't pull out of your driveway without seeing one rolling through the East Cleveland neighborhood. Glover was happy. Being all of 16 at the time, a sophomore at Shaw High School out with his buddies, what else was there to do besides joyride? "People were jumping in and out all day," Wheatt recalls.
"At the end of the day, it ended up just being us three," Glover adds, motioning to Wheatt and Johnson. Those two had been friends forever. Grew up a few houses from each other over on Ardenall. Glover rounded out the trio as they careened into their teenage years.
Here's what's happening: Wheatt's riding shotgun, and Johnson's in the back of the two-door Blazer. They're trucking north along Strathmore. Home is just around the corner.
Clifton Hudson, 19, is walking on the sidewalk. He'd been through a hell of a week so far. Just the day before, in fact, he was telling his brother Derek that some guys had pulled a gun on him. Derek told him that guys always think they're tough when they've got a gun on their side.
And he'd know. Earlier that week, according to police records, some other guys had pulled a gun on Derek, shooting several times from within a gray Chevy Cavalier near East 128th. He fled to a nearby convenience store, safe but concerned. Something was up.
On Feb. 10, as evening slid into view, Hudson had just gotten to the neighborhood after cashing a check nearby. According to witnesses, he looked like he was waiting for someone on Strathmore. Glover and his friends are driving up the street. Another man is walking out of the parking lot of the East Cleveland Post Office, a ragged glut of asphalt that spills onto Strathmore.
Like every other time, Glover stopped at the stop sign attached to the railroad bridge overhead, just short of the intersection with Manhattan Avenue.
And then: gunshots, abrupt and rapid.
Glover hit the gas and took a hard right onto Manhattan. The weird thing about this intersection, you see, is that the stop sign on Strathmore is set way back from Manhattan; you've pretty much got to stop again once you pass under the bridge. Glover didn't even bother. ("I almost hit a car and everything," he says.) He was frightened, and he tore off into the night with his friends, leaving a few bewildered observers with the vision of a black Chevy Blazer fleeing the scene of a shooting.
Back on Strathmore, Hudson lay dying in front of a blue house after a few bullets pierced his left arm and chest. A man was seen rifling through Hudson's pockets before running off and dashing up the hill onto the railroad tracks. (Cash amounting to $166.51 was found in Hudson's jacket later on.)
Hudson was declared dead at 6:28 p.m. Within hours, police officers arrested three suspects.
An investigation unfolded briefly that winter. Defense attorneys would later call this a classic case of tunnel vision. East Cleveland detectives pounded the pavement in the days after the murder, gathering witness reports from about a dozen people of all ages. Some of them saw the shooter, some didn't, but all offered worthwhile perspectives.
Everyone involved was confident that this thing would be wrapped up soon: The three kids figured they'd be home in no time — they had never even heard of this guy Clifton Hudson, after all. For their part, the cops knew that they had people in custody for a murder on their streets. Done deal.
Looking back, Glover says, "If a dude would have come in with a gun and told them, 'I did it,' they probably would have been like, 'Nah, we got three people.'"
The framing of the events surrounding the murder began an hour after Hudson died, when a 14-year-old girl named Tamika Harris was brought down to the East Cleveland Police Department to answer questions about what happened. Officers had encountered her at the scene, where she explained that she was walking home from school — down Manhattan, toward Strathmore — when she heard gunshots. Her first statement sets the stage for the next 20 years.
"I had just come near the bridge, and we heard three (3) gunshots. Both of us ran to the bridge. [My friend, Monique,] turned and ran away. I looked around the bridge and saw this guy get out of a black 4 x 4 with tinted windows. He pulled the gun from his pants and shot three (3) more times. I saw this guy standing on the street and he fell to the ground. The guy that he was shooting at was in front of the blue house where he was found on the ground. After the last shots, I heard the guy yell for help. After the guy finished shooting he looked around he had this black gun in his hands and while he was running he took the gun and tucked it under his jacket. When he got to Manhattan he was still looking around, I saw him and hid flat against the bridge. Before the guy ran towards the bridge whoever was driving the 4 x 4 pulled off and turned right onto Manhattan. He almost crashed into another car coming off Manhattan. They drove fast towards Shaw and stopped, the guy that did the shooting ran to the 4 x 4 got inside and it turned left on Shaw headed towards Hayden."
When asked if she could identify the man who fired the gun, Harris replied, "No. I didn't see his face that clear."
Overnight, police searched and soon found a black Chevy Blazer parked at the bottom of Glover's driveway. After waiting around to make contact with the owner, police saw Glover and Wheatt get into the car. They arrested the two immediately. Johnson was arrested at his home; his mother joined him en route to the police station.
The 14-year-old girl was seated opposite detectives once again the next day, being urged to recount what would become the prevailing narrative of the crime. In short order, she identified Johnson as the shooter. Presented with photos of three men – Johnson, Glover, Wheatt, all in custody by then – Harris selected Johnson.
The die was cast.
Between that point and the January 1996 trial, detectives continued to build supplemental reports, interviewing multiple neighbors whose words would not be heard publicly until almost 20 years later. Defense attorneys themselves weren't made aware of the extent of the investigation, limited as it was, and so they presented only two witnesses who did indeed insist that the shooter was not one of the three men facing charges. They never had a shot at mounting a full-bodied defense, though.
The county prosecutor ran with Harris' storyline, using gunshot residue found on Wheatt's hands and on a glove inside Johnson's jacket as the basis for a "two-shooter theory." Assistant County Prosecutor Michael Horn painted a picture of Wheatt shooting from the front passenger seat before handing the gun back to Johnson, who exited the vehicle to approach and kill Hudson (and then chased the Blazer onto Manhattan and jumped back in).
As the trial wore on over a few days, however, Harris changed her story again and testified that she never saw the shooter emerge from the vehicle. Rather, she saw a man walk around the back of the vehicle — from the post office parking lot — and confront the victim before pulling a gun and shooting him.
"I remember like it was yesterday," Glover says. "Tamika testified on a Friday. And I remember going home that Friday, and for everybody that wasn't there at trial I'm telling them we got this. We've beaten it. Because that's their only witness — and all the stuff she was up there saying, like, 'I made a mistake. I corrected it.' It was just too much. It was bad. I just knew there was no way we could get convicted after that."
The following week they were each convicted on murder charges. They declined to plead guilty for lesser sentences. As their trial attorneys urged a plea deal, the reality of how deep this hole might go was only just beginning to settle in.
"I started getting a little scared then," Glover says. "Like, I'm 17, going away for murder — for life."
Glover was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Johnson and Wheatt picked up 18 years to life. As part of the sentence, Johnson, the one who allegedly finished the murder, was ordered to be placed in solitary confinement every year on Feb. 10, the day Clifton Hudson died.
Time marched on, hand in hand with the sedate pacing of the appeals process. The East Cleveland 3 kept busy with paperwork and legal study.
In 1998, then-Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor of East Cleveland was raising vocal doubts about the convictions of Johnson, Wheatt and Glover. He pushed the police department and rooted around for information that might fill some of the obvious gaps in the crime narrative. There had to be more than seven pages in the case.
That's when the county tossed its weight back into the arena, the reputation of its prosecuting attorneys hinging on a dubious case that was still stirring protest in the neighborhood.
First, Assistant County Prosecutor Carmen Marino (later to serve as county prosecutor) sent a letter to Sgt. Terrence Dunn of the East Cleveland Police Department in June 1998.
"It has come to our attention that the City of East Cleveland intends to release the police file of the investigation of the above captioned case. It is our position that said police file and its contents are not public record, thus any release could constitute a willful violation of the law.
"You are hereby directed to turn over to the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office Investigator presenting this letter the entire department file concerning the above captioned matter, including, but not limited to, all items of the file contained within the Detective Bureau as well as any and all copies which exist elsewhere, including, but not limited to, the Records Room of East Cleveland. Said file and all contents are to be handed over to Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office Investigators forthwith."
What happened in the wake of that letter is hazy, as most — if not all — of the documents contained within the police report did remain in East Cleveland over the years. Had the police department complied, the documents might have been buried in the back room of the prosecutor's office. The truth might have been shredded immediately.
Still, pressure was exerted, and the police report disappeared.
But people in the neighborhood continued to talk, and by the time the Ohio Innocence Project came onboard the case in 2006, a wave of engaged legal expertise was coming down on the East Cleveland Police Department. There had to be more to the story, after all these years.
Carrie Wood, a former staff attorney for the Ohio Innocence Project, who helped shepherd this case to fruition, says that whatever investigation did take place in 1995 was marked with "tunnel vision," a common trait in cases of wrongful conviction. "You jump to a conclusion about Eugene, Laurese and Derrick, and you ignore the evidence that doesn't fit with your theory of the case," she says. "When you ignore evidence of who the true perpetrator was and you ignore evidence of what happened to that victim, you do a disservice to the victim as well as to the people you wrongfully convicted."
There were holes in the case, of course; the guys never stopped proclaiming their innocence, and evidence existed somewhere to back them up. The truth was missing from the official story.
Johnson remembers the Innocence Project attorneys telling him, look, if you've got a murder with three convictions on the table, there's going to be more than seven pages in that report. As litigation continued over the legitimacy of the state's gunshot residue testing protocol — a process later deemed unreliable — the defense of the East Cleveland 3 turned toward the void, that gulf between the prosecution's story and what really went down on Strathmore Avenue on Feb. 10, 1995.
"We all knew, once that came in, that's when I knew it was over with," Johnson says. "It could have been resolved 20 years ago."
Almost in unison, the three men thump thick stacks of paper onto a table at the East Cleveland Public Library. Only a sliver of the thousands of pages of trial transcripts and appeals records, the documents they've brought today include a trove of witness statements and facts from early 1995. They've only been out of prison for a year at this point, and the papers they have in their possession today could have stopped this nightmare before it began. It's an alarming notion.
"The first few pages was the only thing I had ever seen before – like the first five or six pages on top," Glover says, describing the portion of the police report that the guys had access to for most of their time in prison.
After continuous public records requests via the Ohio Innocence Project — including particular pressure applied by appearing in-person at the East Cleveland Police Department — the full police report was delivered to the attorneys and their clients. Just like that, after all those years, the paperwork was discovered.
Contained within the nearly 70-page report were additional witnesses with alternate suspect theories and information that could support a specific motive for the murder of Clifton Hudson.
"It didn't have to go this far," Johnson says. "They took our story and deliberately put us in that situation, planted evidence to make it seem like we done the crime. They hid the truth for 20 years that brought all the pieces together. It didn't have to go this far. It could have been resolved 20 years ago. We got apprehended, arrested, questioned, and, even when we was going on trial, I believe that they knew." Of course, he and his friends and family were certain of that during the first trial. But now, equipped with raw evidence, his deep voice sometimes gives way to astonishment.
On Feb. 12, 1995, two days after the murder, Monica Salters, a resident of Strathmore Avenue, called the East Cleveland Police Department. She said her sons, Dante and Gary Petty, saw the shooting go down. Dante was 10. Gary was 8.
She told detectives — and the children later explained themselves — that Dante was walking north on Strathmore, coming toward the scene of the crime from the opposite direction that Tamika Harris had been walking. Dante was behind the black Blazer. He saw a man walk out of the post office parking lot, approach Clifton Hudson and shoot him.
At the same time, Wheatt's father was working the neighborhood in an attempt to bring more witnesses into the open. He was showing up at the department almost daily, insisting to the chief that there was more to the story. In the police report, he appears frequently in most conversations with other witnesses and neighbors, piecing together an investigation of his own. Wheatt's father insisted that the real shooter had fled up the hill and onto the railroad tracks nearby. Several witnesses who spoke with police mentioned seeing a man run in that direction; the visual is repeated in multiple interviews with detectives.
In the weeks and months that unfolded, Wheatt's father had rounded up additional witnesses who backed up the Petty boy's claims about the shooter's approach. He had identified an alternate suspect, whom detectives didn't interview until May. (The other suspect, a post office employee and neighbor, denied any involvement in the murder.)
Wheatt's father died in 2008.
Through everything, though, police relied on the young girl they met first at the crime scene: Tamika Harris.
In 2004, she recanted her testimony and insisted she believed in Johnson's innocence.
"I was 14 years old. I told the police what they wanted to hear," she said in a hearing that temporarily freed Johnson and granted him a new trial. It was a revelatory moment. "I am older now and realize that I was mistaken."
Glover and Wheatt remained in prison during this time from 2004 to 2005. ("I used to think all along that Tamika was never there," Glover says.) Wheatt remembers watching Johnson's court appearance on the news, eyes gripping the screen in disbelief and hope.
In one of the more shocking twists to the entire case, the Eighth District Court of Appeals overturned Russo's ruling and returned Johnson to prison in June 2005. This was before the Innocence Project had joined forces with the men. He had been out for nine months — slowly readjusting to life in the real world, much like he and his friends have been doing now this past year — before his name landed on an arrest warrant. The recantation wasn't enough, the court ruled; there was still the matter of the gunshot residue found on a glove in his jacket pocket.
"That messed me up," Johnson says. "I ended up in a mental hospital in 2005. To get a taste of freedom and get it snatched away ... I think it took me like four years to just come mentally — come to grips back to myself."
Once again, the journey restarted for him. He reunited via the postal service with Wheatt and Glover in separate penitentiaries. The journey brought the Ohio Innocence Project to their cause in 2006 and, later, the journey forced those long-lost documents into the light.
Trudging along at a glacial pace, with nary a moment for disillusion, the East Cleveland 3 found themselves in Russo's courtroom again in 2015, when she overturned the original convictions of all three men, this time with the compelling information from the police reports on the record. From there, it took another court struggle to garner a new trial one year later — a necessary step in completely clearing their names. (The men remained out of prison during that last year, essentially on house arrest.)
As recently as January 2016, County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty's office was pushing back against the idea of a new trial, opposing the idea and asserting that gunshot residue was still a slam dunk. Never mind Harris' recantation, the state argued, there was physical evidence to confront.
As Innocence Project attorney Brian Howe pointed out during a January 2016 hearing for a new trial, "The state can't put a time stamp on the gunshot residue. Doesn't know if it was four months old or if it came from contamination at the police department."
Aug. 15, 2016, was the first day of the new trial for the three men. They'd waited eons for this opportunity, and the moment whizzed by almost as soon as it arrived. Under McGinty, the state dismissed the murder charges against Johnson, Wheatt and Glover. It was all over.
The new trial flew by in a flurry of emotions. The men entered quiet and reserved and soon flashed brilliant smiles before the press scrum, arms wrapped around friends and family. They were each wearing gold necklaces emblazoned with their likenesses and the name that will never leave: East Cleveland 3. (Johnson's was tucked beneath a checkered olive-green suit.) Their lives resumed, all at once.
"This isn't about one side or another winning, this is about the Constitution winning, this is about justice winning," Russo said. "You are free to go."
(To date, the East Cleveland Police Department has not identified another suspect in the murder of Clifton Hudon. No one else has been charged. The police department did not respond to requests for comment.)
The profundity of the moment recalls Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman's release from prison two years ago in Cuyahoga County. Jackson lays claim to the longest case of wrongful incarceration in U.S. history. He was in prison for 39 years for a 1975 murder.
"He's one of my heroes," Johnson says. "He's real humble."
Johnson and his friends have spoken here and there to the press and to law students at Case Western Reserve University. They say that that's sort of a standard question: whether or not they're bitter about what happened. The East Cleveland 3 say that you can't be. They're looking forward to what's next.
Only recently has the struggle that follows exoneration been a topic of mainstream reporting and conversation. The East Cleveland 3 claim the 1,864th, 1,865th, and 1,866th names in the National Registry of Exonerations, a long list of men and women who've endured a brutal and unnecessary spin through the cogs of a criminal justice system.
"Now that the case is over with, that still hasn't sunk in that we're free," Glover says. "But at the same time it still feels like parole because the whole job search and all of that; it feels like we're on parole. I was always hearing before we got out that it was hard for people to get jobs — especially like for people who went to school, it's still hard for them to get a job. But this is just — I just always thought when this day came, once we get free and get our name cleared, I just knew it would be more opportunity for me than what it is. It ain't like that. It's a struggle. It's a struggle.
"I'd rather struggle out here than go through that again."
They're working to land jobs, massaging helpful connections via their attorneys. But no dice so far. Someone in the mayor's office suggested Glover attend one of those community meetings for people seeking help with their resume. "A resume for what?" he asks rhetorically.
In late September, Johnson, Wheatt and Glover met with a job services rep at the East Cleveland Public Library to discuss possible employment opportunities in the area. The meeting was arranged by Russo, in fact. Glover said they'll hear back soon on the next steps in that process.
They set up a GoFundMe page — though it floundered — and they and their families have toyed with various avenues for outreach, hoping to get their story in the spotlight. There are lessons to be learned. They've even considered setting up a Facebook page. ("That social media is so big now," Glover says. "Like, everybody — most likely when you see them looking at their phone, that's what they're looking at.")
Furthermore, it's unclear what governmental compensation may be coming their way. Ricky Jackson, for instance, received $1 million in 2015 for his 39 years behind bars. The state has not conceded that the East Cleveland 3 were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated. Charges have been dropped, yes, but the state has yet to pave the way for recognition and compensation by declaring them exonerated.
"It's painful for them for the state to continue in that tunnel vision and not to say, listen we screwed up," says Carrie Wood, who has since moved on to the state's public defender office from the Ohio Innocence Project. "We stole your life from you and we apologize for that. It's amazing the denial of that to someone and what it does to them and the impact that it has. And then all of the things that flow — the job and the financial compensation and all the things that help a person start to heal. The denial of that, which stems from the state's inability to say that it made a mistake, is truly huge."
In other news, there's plenty to celebrate. Wheatt got married. Johnson is crafting a book, culled from hundreds of pages he wrote during his time in prison. His goal to is tell his story, his friends' story, and to explain to the public how things like this happen to people.
This case, a disarmingly thorough house of cards, was not a mistake; regardless, it certainly never should have happened. But here they are.
"To get wrongfully convicted together, to go through the nightmare together, and to get released together," Johnson says. "That's the beautiful thing in this whole picture: that strength, that's what the East Cleveland 3 represents. That faith."