These men spent 100 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit

Altogether, they spent more than 100 years in prison—including stints on death row—for a crime they didn’t commit.

Now, 40 years later, the murder remains unsolved, and the three men wrongfully convicted for it sat down with Fusion for their first joint interview since they were exonerated late last year.

They talked about their experiences behind bars, the false confession by a 12-year-old boy that sent them there—and why their first stop as free men was Red Lobster. (Watch the full 16-minute interview here, or see clips below.)

“I couldn’t even cry then, and I’m crying now,” said Ricky Jackson, 58, about the day he finally walked out of prison in November.

“I mean, just to step out…” he recalled. “It was cold outside, but I didn’t feel a thing.”

But Jackson—who now holds the U.S. record for serving the longest time for a wrongful conviction before being exonerated—came a long way, dealing with decades of legal struggle, before getting to that Red Lobster.

“I just wanted to go somewhere and talk and eat and drink.”

Even with a high murder rate at the time, the grisly 1975 murder of Harold Franks shocked the Cleveland community like no other. Franks was attacked outside a Cleveland convenience store, where he had acid thrown on his face. He was then mugged, beaten, shot, and left for dead where the whole neighborhood could see him. It happened in broad daylight.

What followed the killing would become a miscarriage of justice. Three young locals—Jackson, Wiley Bridgeman, and his brother Ronnie Bridgeman, who later changed his name to Kwame Ajamu—would be erroneously pinned for the murder, based solely on the testimony of that 12-year-old.

The men were 18, 20, and 17 years old, respectively, at the time. They’re now 58, 60, and 57.

Time spent behind bars:

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The case is remarkable, but exonerations in general are not rare. The number of people exonerated for crimes they did not commit reached a record high of 125 cases in 2014, according to the National Registry for Exonerations. Six of those exonerated last year were death row cases.

Most of these have stemmed from the rise of “conviction integrity units” which have been set up in prosecutor’s offices across the country. In Brooklyn, one of these units cleared 11 who were wrongfully convicted of homicide over the course of 2014. During the same timeframe in Houston, prosecutors cleared 33 drug-related convictions after crime lab analysis came up negative for illegal drugs after the defendants had already taken plea deals.

According to Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit organization that tracks death penalty cases, there have been 150 death row inmates who have been exonerated since 1976. The average time between sentencing and exoneration is 11.2 years.

The Harold Franks murder case is three of these tragedies rolled into one. But, in order to understand how everything happened, we have to go back to the beginning.

At about four in the afternoon on May 19, 1975, the shots went off, killing Franks and wounding a store clerk. The neighborhood began buzzing with speculation. What happened? Who did it? One of the three men, Bridgeman, remembers seeing Harold Franks lying on the ground outside the store and asking some of the same questions.

Revisiting the scene of the crime

The following day, they began hearing rumors. Someone was claiming they did it, and the police were issuing arrest warrants. The group thought the whole thing was a mistake, and that it would all soon be cleared up.

But it didn’t get straightened out. A few months later all were convicted of the murder based on the testimony of one witness. They faced the death penalty for the crime.

“I didn’t want to be forgotten.”

Bridgeman was only a few weeks away from the electric chair in 1978 when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty sentencing process in Ohio. The three men were then given life in prison.

That meant getting off of death row and going into maximum security state prisons. The three were barely adults.

“It was a feeling of relief, but it was short lived,” Jackson told Fusion after his release. “Now we got to go out there and survive.”

Throughout the years the three maintained their innocence, hoping for a way to prove themselves. Nobody believed them.

But in 2003, Ajamu got out of prison on parole. He vowed to help his brother and his friend.

The most startling thing about the case against the three was that there was no physical evidence. Zero. Every single little thing the state could hold against them was taken from the account of that 12-year-old boy. Finally someone took notice.

In 2003, attorney Brian Howe with Ohio Innocence Project began gathering new evidence that might reopen Ricky Jackson’s case. He worked with over a dozen students who knocked on doors, looking for people who lived in the neighborhood all those years ago who might still remember what really happened that day.

Meanwhile, a separate group of Cleveland attorneys was working together for the brothers. Both teams felt in their gut that all three were innocent of the crime.

“There were many other leads against other people. They had the license plate number of the getaway car that matched up to a known felon who wasn’t any of our three defendants,” said attorney Brian Howe. “So the more that you dug into it, the more it was clear that [they were] telling the truth.”

The murder scene, 1975 (Courtesy of The Cleveland Scene)

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Then everything changed in an instant. In the midst of the legal investigations, Edward Vernon, the witness who was 12 years old at the time, recanted.

“The testimony I gave was false,” Vernon wrote in an affidavit to the court. In the document, he described how the police coerced him into testifying against Ricky and the Bridgeman brothers.

The Cleveland Police Department declined to comment on this story.

On November 21, 2014, Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu, and Ricky Jackson were all exonerated. Just last week, a judge officially declared the three wrongfully convicted, a distinction which allows each former prisoner to receive up to $40,000 from the state for every year they were locked up. The distinction also allows them the chance to sue the city or police department if they can prove police misconduct.

Still, the criminal justice system has failed Harold Franks, whose murder remains unsolved.

“It’s been 40 years now and still the judicial system do (sic) not know who took that man from this earth. Simply because of the miscarriage of justice that was performed on the three of us,” Ajamu said.

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A few months after their release, all are looking forward to their futures and trying to get over their pasts.

Ajamu is now a married man who loves to cook. Bridgeman is hoping to publish a book of poetry. And Jackson wants to travel, but he also wants to go back to prison to be a mentor to younger prisoners.

“Because the cycle is so horrendous, man,” he explained.

For the meantime, the three of them are sitting in a room, enjoying each other’s company, and enjoying freedom.

“To be with these two guys is just phenomenal,” Ricky said, “Because this journey, our initial journey, stopped 39 years ago, involving this community here, this street, that store, that bus stop, and we got sidetracked into something we didn’t foresee.”

“And to be standing right here today, you know, a little bit older, a little bit grayer, but nonetheless here, is just life affirming for me. I’m happy. I’m happy we all made it.”

Watch the full interview here:

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