Ricky Jackson was just 20 and fresh out of the Marines when he went to jail for murder in 1975. Authorities pinned the killing of Harold Franks, a fifty nine-year-old money order clerk in Cleveland, on Jackson and two of his friends, brothers Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman. The conviction came on the testimony of a single twelve-year-old boy with bad eyesight and a confused story.
He spent the next 39 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Jackson was released last Friday, the last of the trio to be freed after that witness, Eddie Vernon, admitted he made up his testimony under police pressure. Today, Jackson was in Cincinnati to thank those who worked tirelessly to help free him.
“I would have walked if it would have come to that,” Jackson said to a packed house on University of Cincinnati's campus. “I wanted to come meet the people instrumental in saving my life.”
The Ohio Innocence Project, which runs out of University of Cincinnati’s College of Law, has been working on Jackson's case since 2010, digging for years to get public records about the case. A Cleveland Scene article in 2011 focused more attention on the story as well. Since those beginnings, OIP has played a huge role in getting Jackson exonerated.
OIP was founded in 2003 to investigate and litigate cases where prisoners have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned. The group is made up of UC Law professors and students who use DNA evidence, new witnesses, evidence of police misconduct, and other information to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates. In just over a decade, they’ve helped free 18 inmates who were wrongfully convicted of murder and other charges. Jackson is the longest-serving inmate in Ohio to be exonerated.
Jackson’s codefendant Ronnie Bridgeman was paroled in 2010, but Jackson’s parole board continued to keep him in prison. Jackson says parole boards wanted him to admit guilt and express regret for the crime before they released him. The only problem was, he was innocent.
“I was on the cusp a lot of times,” he said of confessing. “It seemed like, to me, the only way I was going to get out was to admit guilt. But there was a lot more at stake than just me saying I committed the crime when I know I didn’t. That man’s family gets no justice, I get no justice… at the end of the day I just couldn’t lay down with that in my heart.”
He passed the time by staying fit and helping run the prison’s horticultural project. He ran a greenhouse, something he enjoyed immensely. Still, the time was wearing on him.
“After my last parole board hearing, I was really at an all time low,” he said. “I’m running out of time. I’m 57. How much time to do I really have left? I hate to use this cliché, but they came through like a knight in shining armor. When I was at my eleventh hour, didn’t know what direction I was going to take… these guys came.”
Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project, says Jackson was steadfast in his innocence. He recalls first meeting Jackson at a recent hearing on his request for a new trial in light of witness Vernon recanting his testimony. Prosecutors were offering Jackson a deal — once again, if he would say he was guilty, he could walk free.
“He just looked at us and said, ‘I don’t need anymore time to think about it. I will not take that deal,' ” Godsey recalls. Prosecutors soon conceded that without their only witness, they had no case. Jackson was free.
There are challenges ahead, to be sure. He spent many of his formative years — when most people go to college, start careers, and build families — behind bars.
The OIP is stepping in again with assistance. The group has raised nearly $43,000 to help Jackson get a new start. They’re also fighting the state of Ohio to get a settlement for him based on his wrongful conviction. That could be huge — $40,000 for every year he was imprisoned, plus lost wages and other damages. But it’s not guaranteed. Sometimes, prosecutors fight against these settlements. So far, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office has not officially acknowledged that Jackson and the Bridgemans are innocent or that they were wrongly imprisoned.
In the meantime, Jackson says he’s not sure just yet what he’ll do. But he says he’s up for the challenge of building a life.
“It’s not difficult at all," he said. "Compared to what I just came from, this is beautiful.”