Monday, December 22, 2014

39 Years of Wrongful Incarceration

Editor's note:  Co-Editor Brian Howe is an attorney with the Ohio Innocence Project.  He recently obtained freedom for his client Ricky Jackson who was incarcerated for 39 years.  Brian is a former student of mine and participated in both the Domestic Violence Clinic and Innocence Project during my tenure at Cincinnati College of Law.  He is an amazing individual and I asked him to write about his recent case.  Below is a photo of Mr. Jackson and Brian. At the end of the post is a photograph of Mr. Wiley, whose case Brian also discusses.  M. Drew
by Brian Howe
Earlier this year, I wrote about a study estimating that 4-5% of people sentenced to death may be actually innocent.  I don't know how accurate those statistics are, or if there is any way to know for sure.  But I do believe that even one innocent person sentenced to death is unacceptable.  No one should face what Ricky Jackson, Wiley Bridgeman, and Kwame Ajamu did in 1975.  
That year, a white money order delivery man named Harold Franks was robbed and murdered as he left a convenience store in Cleveland, Ohio.  Ricky Jackson and two other men were arrested and convicted for the crime, based solely on testimony from a 12 year old witness.  The three defendants had basic alibis, and there were serious inconsistencies and flaws in the 12 year old boy's testimony. It wasn't enough. All three defendants were convicted and sentenced to death.  

Thirty nine years later, in November of 2014, the 12 year old boy-- now 51-- took the stand and admitted he had lied.  He never saw the crime.  He claimed that police began considering him a witness because of a misunderstanding, and then pressured him into moving forward with the story.  After a two day evidentiary hearing, Cuyahoga County prosecutors conceded that the case against Jackson was in shambles. and they withdrew their opposition to Jackson's release.  Last week, to their credit, prosecutors affirmed that their sole witness had lied, and that Jackson and his two co-defendants were and are actually innocent.  The office called them "victims of a terrible injustice."  Through the Ohio Innocence Project, I had the privilege of representing Mr. Jackson in the 2014 litigation.  The full background can be found in a pair of fantastic articles written by journalist Kyle Swenson.
Read newspaper accounts here and here.
There are so many powerful parts of this story.  But one of the things that has stuck with me lately is how lucky it was that any of them-- much less all three of them-- avoided execution.  The sentences were not commuted by state officials out of prudence, or cautious concern about the weakness of the case.  Ricky Jackson is alive today because of a minor clerical error in a jury form, the kind of "technicality" that has nothing at all to do with the merits of the case, and that tends to exasperate death penalty advocates. *(1)  The other two defendants are only alive because, in 1978, the United States Supreme Court intervened to reject Ohio's revised capital punishment statute.  By that time one of the defendants, Wiley Bridgeman, had been 21 days from execution.  
It would be strange to call these men "lucky," having just served a majority of their lives in prison for a crime they did not commit.  But it is sobering to think how close they came to being killed.  I am so grateful that I have had an opportunity to get to know Ricky over this past year.  He is an amazing man.  If it would be wrong to say that he is "lucky," then I think at a minimum we are lucky to have him with us, to have his story as an example of our fallibility, and maybe to learn from what happened.
If you would like to donate to Ricky Jackson or Wiley Bridgeman to help them with basic necessities, the links are here and here.  
Happy Holidays!

Brian Howe, Criminal Justice, Incarcerated | Permalink


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