This afternoon, after a two-day hearing in Cuyahoga County courts, good news came for Ricky Jackson.
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.
Jackson’s 39 years will be the longest amount of time any exoneree has spent in an Ohio prison.
Bridgeman, 60, said he never lost hope that he would be freed for good.
“You keep struggling, you keep trying,” he said.
Bridgeman embraced his brother Ajamu as he walked out of the courthouse. He seemed overwhelmed by the whirlwind of the past few days, saying he wasn’t sure what the future holds, outside of a celebratory fish dinner.
“Stick with me. You’ll be all right,” Ajamu said. “I ain’t never going to let you go.”
Jackson and his lawyers planned to celebrate Friday at a hotel. Asked where he was going to live, Jackson replied: “It’s ironic. For 39 years, I’ve had a place to stay. Now, you know, that’s precarious.”
Ajamu said in an interview Thursday that the prospect of the three being together again is “mind boggling.” Ajamu spent his 18th birthday on death row and was in prison when his mother, a brother and a sister died.
“The idea that my brother ? both of those guys are my brothers ? are getting out? I don’t even care about me,” Ajamu said.
The three were sentenced to death under an Ohio capital punishment law that was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978.
The Bridgemans’ death sentences were commuted to life in prison after the ruling. Jackson’s sentence was commuted in 1977 because of a mistake in jury instructions.
The three-year process that led to their exonerations began with a story published in Scene Magazine in 2011 that detailed flaws in the case, including Eddie Vernon’s questionable testimony. Vernon, now 52, did not recant until a minister visited him at a hospital in 2013. Vernon broke down during a court hearing for Jackson on Tuesday as he described the threats by detectives and the burden of guilt he had carried for so long.
Attempts to locate Vernon for comment on Friday were unsuccessful.
Jackson said he holds no animosity toward Vernon.
“It took a lot of courage to do what he did,” he said. “He’s been carrying a burden around for 39 years, like we have. But in the end, he came through, and I’m grateful for that.”
The Ohio Innocence Project took up Jackson’s cause after the Scene article even though there was no DNA evidence, the hallmark of Innocence Project cases. A Cleveland attorney represented Bridgeman and Ajamu.
Joe Frolik, a spokesman for county prosecutor Tim McGinty, declined to comment on Thursday except to reiterate a statement McGinty made Tuesday: “The state concedes the obvious.”