Kwame Ajamu was just 17 when he was convicted of murder in the killing of a Cleveland money-order salesman. On Tuesday, Ajamu, now 57 and out on parole since 2003, wept after a judge cleared all charges against him.
The case against Ajamu, formerly known as Ronnie Bridgeman, began to fall apart after a key witness recanted his testimony decades after the conviction.
In 1975, two people had attacked Harold Franks with acid, and one of the people shot him. A third person drove a getaway car. A 12-year-old boy, Eddie Vernon, served as the state’s main witness in the case, and a jury convicted Bridgeman (as he was known at the time), along with his brother Wiley Bridgeman, then 20, and Ricky Jackson, 19.
The three were sentenced to death, but their sentences were later commuted. Ajamu was released on parole in 2003 after serving 27 years.
A 2011 magazine story delving into what happened on that day in 1975 prompted a new look at the case. Ohio Innocence Project lawyers came to represent the defendants.
Last month, Vernon recanted his testimony, saying he was just a boy who wanted to help police and that he didn’t actually see the crime. Instead, he revealed, he was on a bus. In the 1970s, Vernon said, he had provided the names and authorities fed him the other details.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m doing the right thing,’ ” Vernon testified last month. “I told the officer, ‘I know who did it.’ ”
In November, a judge freed Jackson, who cried out, “I can’t believe this is over,” the Plain Dealer reported. Jackson served 39 years in prison, the longest sentence served by any defendant who has been exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Two hours after Jackson was freed, another judge cleared Wiley Bridgeman of charges.
Ajamu, Bridgeman and Jackson could seek a total of $4.1 million in compensation, a move that Cuyahoga County prosecutors say they will not fight. People who were found to be wrongfully imprisoned can receive more than $40,000 for each year they were imprisoned per Ohio state law.
“They have been the victims of a terrible injustice,” county prosecutor Mary McGrath said in documents filed with the county court, the Plan Dealer reported.
“We were robbed,” Ajamu said Tuesday. “There will be no offspring when I die. When my brother passes away, that is it. We don’t have children. There will never be another Ronnie Bridgeman.
“The important part is that we have been united while we are standing forward and upward and that we are not looking at each other in the graveyard.”
Ajamu also thanked Scene magazine writer Kyle Swenson, who wrote about the case, the AP reported.
He also said he’d like to meet the now-52-year-old Vernon. “I would say, ‘I’m not angry with you,’ ” Ajamu said, the Plain Dealer reported. “I didn’t believe Edward had any malice. He was a kid who got caught up in the wrong thing.”
Vernon’s pastor, the Rev. Anthony Singleton, had noticed that something was plaguing the man. After the 2011 Scene story published, he tried to get Vernon to talk about what happened that day in 1975. Then, in 2013, with Vernon’s health deteriorating, Singleton broached the subject again, and Vernon, lying in a hospital bed, confessed. “The words tumbled out,” the Scene reported. He later repeated the confession in an affidavit.
On Tuesday, Ajamu said: “It’s my hope going forward that we don’t have to wait another 40 years for the next Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman, Ricky Jackson. It’s my hope from this day on we can stop ignoring what is obvious in the criminal justice system and move forward with peace and love.”