Three Wrongfully Convicted Men, 40 Years, and a City That Still Refuses to be Honest With Itself

Clevelanders today get a bad rap. We're proud but touchy — easy to injury. We'll be the first to dive head first into everything that's wrong with our town, but the argumentative dukes go up when an outsider launches a similar critique. I know — my argumentative dukes and blood pressure shoot up as fast as anyone who loves the town when I predict a slight at the city's expense. "Cleveland Against the World" is spot on. They say we're a gloomy or dyspeptic folk. I say we're just constitutionally honest.

When I was researching my book (Good Kids, Bad City: A Story of Race and Wrongful Conviction in America, out now at your preferred local or online book shop), one of the biggest surprises I discovered was how important public debate and social conversation have been to Cleveland throughout the city's history. This really actually goes for the entire Midwest region. Discourse is a grand tradition here. Think of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Or how the frontier historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries wrote and debated endlessly on the meaning of the Midwest, trying to fit its place into the national narrative. Cleveland has a strong legacy of a free press — I sometimes shock myself when I recall we at one point had not one but two feisty alternative weekly newspapers. And our politics were famous. A national reporter from the East Coast commented in the 1960s that Cleveland's mayoral races were as intense and spirited as the gubernatorial or Senate contests elsewhere.

We talk out issues, talk them out loudly, fiercely.

This is why we're so self-critical but also proud citizens. It's a by-product of being a town that can look at itself in the mirror and give an honest account of what we see there.

But I believe it's a tradition we're in danger of losing.

I'm a little defensive about the title of my book, which is admittedly odd considering I chose it.

The book discusses the case of three young black men from the east side who were wrongfully convicted of murdering a white salesman in May 1975. The crime occurred at a convenience store near Cleveland's far eastern edge, not far from the Cleveland Clinic today. The victim was a money order salesman making his last stop of the day. He was attacked leaving the store, doused with acid and shot.

These three young men were arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for this murder, all on the basis of the inconsistent eyewitness testimony of a 12-year-old boy from their neighborhood who claimed he had watched all three participate in the violent act.

In fact, they were innocent, not even at the scene of the crime, the witness's testimony a pure product of the imagination. Yet it would take 39 years, 3 months and 6 days for that truth to finally emerge. Together they would serve 106 years before their exoneration — one of the longest, if not the longest, wrongful convictions in American history.

So "good kids, bad city." The city we're speaking of is clear — Cleveland. The kids would be the three young men involved — Ronnie Bridgeman, his brother Wiley Bridgeman, and their friend Rickey Jackson.

At the time, Ronnie was the youngest at 17. Growing up, he'd been small, so his family took to calling him Bitsie, as in itsy-bitsy. Ronnie was cool. I'm not saying he dressed the best or had a good way with the ladies, although he did have that. Ronnie had a great sense of self, the poise that allowed him to get along with everyone, crack the right jokes, pull those around him in like a tractor beam. In 1975 he was figuring out his life, consumed by girls and having nice clothes and singing in a local group called the Golden Teardrops.

Rickey was the yin to Ronnie's yang, the straight man to a cutup like Ronnie. He was quiet and self-possessed, with a loner streak running through him since an early age. Growing up, Rickey often explored the city alone, riding the downtown bus in random directions or sneaking off to the Cleveland Museum of Art. His reserve, however, was not an indication of aloofness. The little boy who wanders the hallways of an art museum is an observer. Rickey was — and is today — a keen reader of the room, a guy who thought before he acted. By 1975, he and Ronnie were inseparable.

And then there was Wiley. I think everyone was in awe of Wiley. First off, when you are 17 or 18, you're just coming into your own, personality still in flux, a rough draft of who you'll be. Wiley was 22 in 1975, an adult really, and Wiley was unlike anyone else on the block. He was cerebral, a thinker who discussed big ideas and composed his own poetry. His mother caught this early on, this relentless mind chugging away inside her son — she called him The Professor. When he was working a summer job at a library downtown, Wiley would sneak off to the recording booth to listen to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. He knew all about Marxism and communism, could tell you about dialectical materialism and the battles of the proletariat. He felt, there on the streets of Cleveland, the stirrings of what would become known as the Afro-Pride and Black Power movements. His nickname growing up was "Buddy."

"Good kids, bad city." I am defensive about the title. The title implies values — the kids are good, the city is bad. I know Cleveland is a proud town but touchy, easy to injure; as I wrote, I had an invisible Clevelander in my head, belligerently asking why I had the temerity to slap the label "bad city" on the town. Was that fair? What makes a place bad, or good? I spent many an hour not writing, arguing with this invisible but touchy Clevelander, justifying the title.

But the title was important. It's a direct nod to L.A. rapper Kendrick Lamar and his 2012 album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. There are two reasons I wanted, I needed, that allusion. The first is aesthetic, an echo I heard in Lamar's work that also played through the story I was setting out to tell.

In one of the songs in the album, Kendrick says "feels like the whole city go against me." The narrator of the song is reeling off all the troubles piled up around him in Compton: drug dealers, aggressive cops, poverty, friends falling into gangs. It's claustrophobic anxiety as a sense of place.

When I first heard this song, I knew I had heard the feeling it was expressing before.

Ronnie Bridgeman changed his name to Kwame Ajamu while in prison. He was eventually released in the early 2000s, and eventually, in 2011, he approached me about investigating the circumstances around the 1975 convictions.

As we got to know one another, Kwame explained that when he was released, the last place he wanted to be paroled to was Cleveland. Columbus, Canton, Toledo, Dayton — he asked to be shipped to anywhere else in Ohio, just not Cleveland. He had so thoroughly associated the injustice done to him with the city, they couldn't be separated. Both Kendrick Lamar and Kwame were talking about a kind of despair that was three-dimensional and concrete.

* * *

I wrote this book because I was pissed off, to be completely honest.

That may be the most dignified emotion to jump-start a project like this, but that's the honest truth — and outrage can be an effective engine. I can tell you exactly when I got pissed off, and why.

It was Nov. 19, 2014, the day Rickey Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman were released from prison. Rickey had been in prison continuously since 1975, 39 years in total, which was then the longest wrongful conviction in U.S. history to end in exoneration. The numbers, and the dramatic fashion of their exoneration, attracted attention. This was a media event. All the local television stations were there, as well as national and international camera crews. I remember seeing Kwame and his wife LaShawn sprinting — literally sprinting — down a hallway in the courthouse, a dozen cameras chasing after them like paparazzi running down Jay-Z and Beyoncé. When Rickey emerged into a lobby hallway, his first steps as a free man, he walked into a red-carpet-like barrage of flash bulbs. Then the questions began: What will you do first? Where will you go? What will your first meal be? What's the biggest change?

This was a great day for me, probably one of the most meaningful 24 hours of my life.

But creeping in from the edge of that elation, I felt a rising anger. I was pissed. The cameras, those questions and all the coverage that day felt horribly off, like a tune in the wrong key. Where will you go first? What will you eat? There was a certain shallow glibness to the tone.

Later I realized that this is often how we talk about wrongful convictions in this country. We seem apt to conceptualize them as singular instances of bad luck, a one-in-a-million cosmic moment where all the circumstances just added up to a bad result.

We don't seem to have the stomach to look harder, to see these not as stand-alone tragedies but as systemic failures, or to see a wrongful conviction for what it actually is: the complete perversion of one of the founding values of our country, the rule of law.

Now, yes, I admit, the gravity of those implications may be difficult to cram into a two-minute television news clip.

But the tone of the coverage that day — particularly the national coverage — felt inappropriately celebratory to me. Where will you eat first? It seemed exclusively focused on the future while explicitly ignoring the past. At best a cursory acknowledgement was suggested that something terrible had taken place all those years ago. But it was old news now, ancient history, time-stamped to a less enlightened chapter of our national history, and now it had been fixed. A phew, thank god that's all over now, right guys?

It was one occasion where Cleveland failed to look itself in the mirror and honestly report back what we saw.

James Baldwin once wrote that "the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers." The answer here was that these men were innocent. The question blotted out by that answer on that day in November, the question we should have been asking ourselves, was how the hell did this happen?

Trying to answer that question — and its followup: Who let this happen? — was not easy. In fact, it became far more complicated the longer I looked at this case. It was the reverse of one of those Magic Eye images where you stare at a confused mess and eventually the picture snaps into focus. The longer I looked at this case, the familiar outline of the story I thought I knew dissolved.

For example, Edward Vernon. He was the 12-year-old boy who testified against Rickey, Ronnie and Wiley at their 1975 trials. Clearly, he bore the blame for what happened here, the responsibility sitting on his shoulders. And when I originally reported on the case in 2011, he loomed large in my mind as the villain of the story.

But when Edward finally recanted his testimony as a middle-aged man in 2014, he explained his testimony was coerced. Cleveland police detectives had threatened to arrest the boy's parents if he did not go forward with his false testimony. His mother was struggling through cancer at the time. He felt he had no choice, pinned between knowingly lying and exposing his family to potential danger. He was a frightened child.

So that led to the police officers, the adults who coerced Edward's testimony. Throughout my reporting, I uncovered other allegations of misconduct leveled against these detectives — including acts of physical violence against suspects. In the 1970s, of course, these allegations were largely dismissed — dismissed by white Clevelanders as improbable, dismissed by black Clevelanders as an everyday toll of living here.

But combined with Edward's claims of coercion, this threaded a pattern of repressive violence in the law enforcement officers involved in Rickey, Wiley and Ronnie's convictions. The specific men involved were long dead, but I spent a very long time trying to climb inside their heads, to understand their behavior. Did they really believe Rickey, Wiley and Ronnie were guilty, and so felt justified in doing whatever they needed to make a case? Or were guilt and innocence beyond their consideration? Did they just not care? Did they just want to close the file?

Both answers suggested a corrosive cynicism in these men, a vehement disregard not only for the basic principles of law and order, but for the people they were sworn to serve.

But there was another group who also shouldered some blame.

When I originally reported the story, I was surprised that so many people from Rickey, Kwame and Wiley's neighborhood clearly remembered the case. "Those guys are still in prison," one man told me. "And they didn't even do it."

This surprised me — everyone remembered, and also knew they were innocent. Over time I talked with people who actually had been with the defendants when they were alleged to have been committing the crime. Others I found actually saw the crime as it was committed.

They were never questioned by investigators, but they also did not offer up this potentially vital information. At least one potential witness was not allowed to speak up because of her father. Police records indicate another individual called investigators to say they had gotten the wrong guys. But the calls eventually stopped. People stayed quiet. They went silent.

How could someone not have spoken up? I wondered. Why this fear of getting involved with the police? Where was this silence coming from?

I worked hard to understand this as well. Unlike the police, these neighbors were still alive, yet they struggled to explain that silence. Whatever it was, it went far beyond youth and was tinged with both fear and shame.

Over time I began to see the roots of both this cynicism I picked up in the police and the fear in the neighbors were symptoms of something larger, a seismic shift taking place at the time not just in Cleveland, but across the country.

These were political changes, and you could see the fault lines if you looked at the Cleveland police department, the local political class, and the volatile relationship between both of them and Cleveland's black community in the 1960s and '70s.

Two events indelibly marked these decades. The first was the 1967 election of Carl Stokes as mayor of Cleveland, the first African American to be elected mayor of a major American city. The second was the 1968 Glenville shootout, where a group of black militants opened fire on Cleveland police, one of the first episodes of such open armed racial hostility in America, a moment when the country was introduced not to the blind chaos of race riots, but purposeful guerrilla warfare.

By the late 1960s, the gains of the Civil Rights movement had triggered a response from the establishment, as much in the industrial North as the Jim Crow South. Many spoke of an "excess of democracy," a lofty way of saying suddenly more people wanted their rightful seat at the table. As an active part of the established political process, Stokes represented a much more salient threat to the old order than most Civil Rights figures. On election day in 1967, nine predominantly black wards in Cleveland's east side exceeded the turnout in 15 predominantly white wards. That is a significant kind of shift.

Politicians, obviously driven by the fear of a black electorate personified in Stokes, found a novel way to undermine him. They began to speak in a specific language about law and justice. Stokes pushed for police reform; as a black man in Cleveland, he knew the everyday toll of living here. These politicians were against Stokes and all he stood for, so they threw themselves behind the police. You were either pro-police or pro-criminal — they broke it down to that simple, electrified binary. The Glenville shootout was a gift for these politicos, because it deepened that polarization. You were either pro-police, or pro-black militant.

The Cleveland police, however, were not making it easy for their political patrons on City Council.

For one, by 1974, a year before the murder in this case, crime was rising, particularly on the white west side. The division of police was also constantly being exposed in headlines for malfeasance. In the years we're talking about, officers were accused of everything from running burglary rings and spending their shifts drinking in bars to taking payments from pimps and even raping young girls in city parks. The combination of rising crime and institutional malfeasance prompted some council members to threaten that if things didn't get better, they would take out a provision of the city charter requiring Cleveland officers to have the highest salaries among law enforcement across the state. Pressure was on the police.

Pressure was also on City Hall in 1974. There were calls for grand jury investigations and committees on police corruption. In fact, there was a reform wave rolling through police departments everywhere, it was really part of the zeitgeist. The best known was perhaps New York City's Knapp Commission, an exhaustive investigation into the NYPD's conduct, featuring whistleblower Frank Serpico. But departments across the country were undergoing similar probes, systemic housecleanings that would eliminate bad actors and install new practices, impacting American law enforcement for decades.

In Cleveland, however, there was no political will for this kind of hard look in the mirror. Remember, the terms of the city's politics had been set: You were either pro-police or pro-criminal. Outside of a handful of criminal charges and some press releases, then-Mayor Ralph Perk did little to fix the department in 1974.

That likely was tied to another kind of pressure: financial pressure.

By the 1970s, Cleveland was heading straight for bankruptcy and default. Mayor Perk, however, kept the city alive, principally through federal handouts. In this area, Perk was uniquely situated. As one of the few Republicans running an American big city, he was favored by the largess of the Nixon Administration. By 1975, a third of the city's operating budget came from federal grants. In the early years of the decade, the city was one of a handful of municipalities awarded large federal grants for law enforcement, money that represented the Republican administration's amplification of the "war on crime."

However, Perk was told implicitly by Washington that this money — so badly needed for the struggling city — would be jeopardized by any more headlines about Cleveland's bad police department. Police corruption did not outweigh the politics here. The department was not cleaned up.

A year later, three innocent young men were arrested. A little boy was coerced into testifying. A case file was closed.

Sometimes we fail to take that look in the mirror and give an honest account of what we see there on purpose.

A witness who is forced to lie. An aggressive police department that seems at war with the black community. Neighbors stunned into silence. Politicians who calculate their actions not on the moral imperative of their office but on financial bottom-lines or how their actions would sink their rivals. Power in the service of its own survival.

You can see how Kwame Ajamu later could not separate the injustice done to him from the town itself. Remember Kendrick Lamar: "Feel like the whole city go against me."

* * *

So what does that mean? This goes well beyond explaining the civic conditions where a wrongful conviction can happen.

This means you can run a line directly from how law and order was politicized in the Stokes era, how these politics stymied police reform around the time Rickey, Wiley and Kwame were snatched from the streets, to the Cleveland of recent years.

This means today we have a police department that has been regularly in the headlines over excessive force and citizens' complaints; a police force that is so insular, it greets any gesture toward reform with defensive howls of protest; a police force that is historically contemptuous of civilian review; a police force that has twice — I repeat, because this is not a usual municipal occurrence — twice since 2000 been subject to Department of Justice investigations and subsequent agreements; a police force that knows political leaders, like the ones in the 1970s, will not spend political capital on pushing for meaningful reform; a police department that had an unqualified candidate in uniform two days after Rickey Jackson's release in 2014, when this officer jumped from his police cruiser at the Cudell Recreation Center and gunned down Tamir Rice.

Sometimes failing to look in the mirror and give that honest account has long-term consequences.

My book tells Rickey, Kwame and Wiley's story.

But there is a second, larger, story running beneath the first, and that is the story about how forces within the American political system radically changed this country in the decades following the Civil Rights movement.

Some of these were conscious decisions. Others were the unintentional effects of policies. But these were all political changes that ultimately pushed us further away from each other, laid distance between different generations, different economic rungs, and different races. And it also pushed those groups further away from the basic promises of a democratic society, from the promise of equal protection under the law, from the promise of holding elected official truly accountable on election day.

The politicization of law and order in the late 1960s and 1970s is just one of the shifts that altered American life. But there are so many more.

There was federal redlining that created the suburbs and therefore segregated people of color into inner city neighborhoods. Or how suburbs and cities were forced to undercut one another for business relocations. Or how a splurge of corporate tax subsidies kneecapped the city's tax base, which is how you end up ultimately with potholes and undemolished empty houses and untested rape kits and lead in your drinking water. Or how federal policies related to the war on drugs clogged our courthouses with cases, overtaxing our prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. Or how economic development has been pooled in certain areas of the city at the expense of others. The list could go on. And it would be the story of the late 20th century.

These shifts do not just change our cities and communities — they change our relationships with others. They change us. I realized eventually they had worked changes in me.

When I first met Kwame, he told me his story and I believed him — almost. Kwame's testimony, the strength of his conviction, the pull of his personality — it all was convincing. And yet one small piece of me hung back, not because I had any doubts about the honesty of man I was speaking with, but because I assumed the American justice system could not make a mistake like the one he described, that the proper safety nets had to be in place for catching the innocent, that our courts lived up to their promise.

Quickly, through reporting on this case, I realized how incredibly wrong I was: that not only were these men innocent, but that our criminal justice system had no such safety nets and in fact was generally indifferent to guilt or innocence once the jurors had signed the verdict and the judge had passed a sentence. I was so shocked that I had assumed otherwise, I felt my naivete was in a way a form of moral culpability.

How could I not know otherwise? Finally I realized this was because I had never been on the wrong end of the criminal justice system, and that had everything to do with who I was: suburban-bred, middle-class and white.

In what I think of as the moral climax of my book, I write, "There is responsibility in perspectives. We're accountable for what we see in the world, and more importantly, we're responsible for what we don't see."

The test of that responsibility means being honest about what we miss and why we miss it.

The wrongfully convicted man or woman has no room for self-deception or an inaccurate understanding of him- or herself.

Your identity has been hijacked. The city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, the state of Ohio, the United States, all say you are someone you are not: a murderer. You know you aren't, but that doesn't matter. To survive that kind of total erasure and disfigurement of character, you must be honest with yourself, cling to that personality, never let identity slip from the facts. Every look in the mirror must be an honest account. That is what I learned from these three men.

Cities, however, are suckers for self-deception, easy marks for thinking we're something other than what we really are, believing we're only one new building or riverfront development or tech startup or new stadium or gentrified neighborhood away from fixing our problems. All cities, but Cleveland, too.

"Good kids, bad city."

"Good" as a measure of this honesty, "bad" as the measure of how far we've fallen from seeing or accepting what's going on around us.

These issues live on today as much as they did in 1975. This is very much a history we're still living with.

Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.