OIP Gets Triple Exoneration in Death Penalty case; Longest-serving Person to be Exonerated in U.S. History Set Free
Cincinnati, OH—“I … was sentenced to death by electrocution for a crime I didn’t commit,” said Ricky Jackson, testifying on the witness stand Tuesday, November 18, 2014, about spending nearly 40 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Jackson was exonerated that day, due to the relentless hard work of the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP). He has the tragic distinction of setting the record for the longest-serving person to be exonerated in U.S. history; Jackson and co-defendants Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman, together served over 100 years in prison.
Jackson will be freed officially on Friday, November 21, 2014. Terry Gilbert and David Mills, attorneys for the Bridgemans, are expected to ask the Cuyahoga County prosecutors to drop the case against the brothers. One of the Bridgeman brothers is still behind bars.
A Frightening Beginning
In 1975 Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers were convicted of killing a money-order collector at a Cleveland grocery store. All three received the death penalty and came close to execution. It is now known that the convictions were based on a lie by a then 12-year-old boy Eddie Vernon, who helped build the case against them. Vernon recently recanted his story. As reported in The Cleveland Plain Dealer article, Vernon, this week, told Judge Richard McMonagle, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, that he lied to the police, prosecutors and juries when he was a boy. He shared that all of the information was fed to him by the police. He didn’t have any knowledge about what happened at the scene of the crime; in fact, he had been on a bus with several school friends at the time of the incident and did not see anything transpire.
In the Cleveland Plain Dealer article Vernon shared that he hid the lies for years, saying the detectives told him that if he mentioned what he did, they would put his parents in prison for perjury.
OIP’s Exhaustive Investigation Was Key
OIP staff attorney Brian Howe’10 investigated and litigated the case, previously handled by Carrie Wood ‘05. Howe conducted an exhaustive investigation, including finding new witnesses for the 40-year-old case by literally knocking on random doors in the neighborhood where it happened and asking “Were you around in 1975? You know anyone who knows anything about that case?” Jodi Shorr, OIP administrative director, OIP student fellows over the years, and private investigators provided additional, crucial support.
In particular, noted OIP director Mark Godsey in an email to the College of Law community about the victory, OIP fellow Scott Crowley ‘11 took particular notice of the case in 2010, among the hundreds the group receives each year. He pressed the attorneys to keep it open and to continue digging because he had a feeling something wasn’t quite right. His persistence paid off.
Then, in 2011 undergraduate intern Gretchen Schrader, now herself a law student in Indiana, was assigned the Jackson case as a special project. Frustrated that the City of Cleveland wasn’t responding to public records requests, Schrader continued to dig and dig until she got all of the records needed in the case. Commented Godsey, “It was Gretchen who obtained the vital information that would eventually break open the case.”
Sierra Merida’14, another OIP fellow, spent many hours on the phone with potential witnesses, found through Schrader’s work. She developed a strong rapport with the community of witnesses and was able to get them to speak openly about the case.
An Amazing Moment
The Tuesday hearing, which was scheduled because Jackson was seeking a new trial based on Vernon’s attempt to correct the lie he told years before, started with the State offering to consider a deal for a plea to time served and the ability to walk free immediately. Jackson, however, said “I don’t need more time to think about it. I am an innocent man. I will not take the deal.” He felt that he couldn’t lie to walk free –not for himself or the other victims in the case.
Said Godsey, the biggest moment of surprise came in the afternoon while waiting for closing arguments to start. The prosecutors did not return after the court recess. When they eventually appeared, the entire team entered and announced that the case was over. They had to concede the obvious and drop all charges against Jackson. “The OIP has never had a moment like that in any of our cases where it happens right there in court in an unexpected way. We’re used to finding out that we won through some sort of electronic filing from the court long after the hearing is over,” said Godsey.
Congratulations to the legions of OIP alumni and attorneys who had a hand in this case: Gabrielle Carrier, Donald Clancy, John Markus, Julie Payne, Lacy Maerker, Caity Brown, Katie Barrett, Lauren Staley, Andrew Cleves, Sean Martz, Elise Lucas Elam, Kurt Gee, John Kennedy, Carrie Wood, Brian Howe, and many others.
Those wishing to support the OIP to help continue its work to free the innocent can do so at uc.edu/give .
Read how your donations impacted this case. Private Donations Help Free Jackson
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