The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Exposing injustice and a city’s dark side

Mark Whitaker is the author of “Smoketown: The Unknown Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance.” Previously, he was managing editor of CNN and, before that, editor of Newsweek.

In 2011, Kyle Swenson was a 25-year-old cub reporter for the Cleveland Scene, a small alternative newspaper, when he received an unexpected phone call. It was from a former convict named Kwame Ajamu who claimed that he and two other local black men who were still in prison had spent decades behind bars for a murder they didn’t commit. Originally, Ajamu had approached Terry Gilbert, a crusading civil rights lawyer. But Gilbert was swamped with other cases that involved DNA evidence, the most convincing path to proving wrongful convictions, and this case had none. So Gilbert suggested that Ajamu contact Swenson, figuring that if there was anything to the story, a newspaper investigation might help his cause.

When the skinny white reporter from the Cleveland suburbs met the burly product of the city’s predominantly black East Side, he was skeptical, despite the thick file of supporting documents that Ajamu brought to their first encounter at a downtown Starbucks. But Swenson needed fresh copy, and once he dug into the story he became convinced of the three men’s innocence. He wrote an exhaustive exposé that eventually helped to exonerate Ajamu, who had converted to Islam and changed his name from Ronnie Bridgeman, and to win freedom for the two other defendants, Ronnie’s older brother, Wiley, and his best friend, Rickey Jackson.

Now Swenson has produced a compelling, beautifully written book that goes well beyond that initial journalistic probe into a grave injustice. “Good Kids, Bad City” is a powerful addition to the growing literature on the failures of America’s criminal justice system, particularly in dealing with African American men. But it is also a gripping, novelistic account of what happened to the three defendants and their lone accuser after the convictions, a frank confession of the methods and emotions of an obsessed reporter, and a poignant meditation on the dark side of Cleveland and what became of that once-proud embodiment of Midwestern virtues that allowed this travesty to happen.

On a hot Monday afternoon in May 1975, a white money-order salesman named Harry Franks made the next-to-last stop on his rounds to collect commissions from convenience stores on Cleveland’s East Side. It was too late to go to the bank to deposit the $429.55 cash payment, so Franks headed straight to his last stop with the money in a leather briefcase. As Franks was leaving the Fairmount Cut-Rate, two young black men jumped him. When Franks resisted, they attacked him with a pipe and threw acid in his face, and one youth fired several shots, leaving the salesman to bleed to death as they ran away and jumped into a green car driven by another man.

Several witnesses agreed on those details. But only one, a quiet, near-sighted 12-year-old neighborhood kid named Edward Vernon, identified Jackson, 18, as the shooter and Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman, 21 and 17, as his accomplices. Never mind that the three had alibis, that Vernon’s story had inconsistencies and that several tips pointed to other suspects.

Police and prosecutors built an entire case around the boy’s testimony, winning double murder and robbery convictions that put the three other youths on death row.

But the Dickensian saga of cruel twists and providential turns was only beginning. Two years later, Wiley Bridgeman won a retrial but was convicted again based on Vernon’s single say-so. Wiley was slated for execution by “Old Sparky,” the state’s electric chair, but on the scheduled date it was announced that the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down Ohio’s death penalty statute, and its pending capital sentences were converted to life with a 15-year minimum. Jackson kept his head down in hopes of winning parole, but by the time he became eligible, a tough new practice of adding 10 more years to former death sentences, which prisoners called “super flops,” had taken effect. Ronnie Bridgeman finally got out in 2003 and discovered that a prison clerical error had altered one digit in his new Social Security number. With a clean ID and a Muslim name, Kwame Ajamu started over with a steady job and new wife. He could have walked away from his past as Ronnie Bridgeman, but he refused to give up on proving his innocence and getting his brother and friend out of jail.

A hellish fate, ironically, also awaited the accuser, Edward Vernon. As an increasingly troubled teen, Vernon sampled booze and pot, then graduated to harder stuff just as crack cocaine began flooding America’s inner cities. Soon he fell down a 20-year well of living in crack dens and sleeping in cars on the street. Finally Vernon found religion and got sober, but that only made it harder to escape the prison of a guilty conscience. At late-night prayer vigils at his church on the East Side, Vernon would suddenly break into loud, unexplained wailing, but he refused to discuss what was tormenting him with his worried pastor, even after he suffered a stress-induced stroke.

Swenson’s investigative odyssey took an unexpected turn, too. After months of digging, he hoped that his scoop would break the case wide open again. But when it was published, nothing happened. Swenson became so depressed and angry that he left Cleveland for a new job in Florida. (He now works for The Washington Post.) Yet unbeknownst to Swenson, once Jackson read the article in prison, he started working with lawyers for the Ohio Innocence Project. Those lawyers tracked down Vernon and got him to recant his false testimony and to provide details of how he had been coerced and coached by police. Based on that new evidence, Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman finally walked free in 2014, after serving what at the time were the longest terms of exonerated prisoners in U.S. history.

While working on his investigation, Swenson sought advice from Michael D. Roberts, a legendary local reporter. “What’s it say about the town?” was Roberts’s mantra for Cleveland stories, and in this book Swenson gives a furious answer. Starting with the city’s riots of the 1960s, he traces a vicious cycle of racial mistrust and political dysfunction that led to decades of Cleveland police scandals and the hardening of an East Side black community that kept its doubts about the wrongful convictions silent. It is an impassioned lament for his fallen home town, and it burns so hot in the opening chapters that a reader might wonder when Swenson will get back to his main characters. Keep reading, because he does. After 40 pages, you will not want to put this riveting and important book down.

Good Kids, Bad City

By Kyle Swenson

Picador. 289 pp. $29