"I Didn't Know What the Sky Looked Like Anymore": Ricky Jackson Exonerated After 39 Years in Jail

November 26, 2014
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Ricky Jackson

has just been released from prison after 39 years for a crime he did not commit.

Brian Howe

staff attorney with the Ohio Innocence Project.

An Ohio man has been freed from prison after spending 39 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Ricky Jackson, a 59-year-old African-American man, had been jailed since 1975 on a murder conviction. The prosecution’s case was based on the testimony of a 13-year-old witness. After a 2011 investigation, the witness recanted his testimony, saying he had implicated Jackson and two others under police coercion. The witness, Eddie Vernon, said police had fed him the story and threatened to arrest his parents if he didn’t cooperate. On Friday, Ricky Jackson was freed after prosecutors dropped the case. With nearly four decades wrongfully behind bars, Jackson is the longest-held U.S. prisoner to be exonerated. He joins us today along with his lawyer, Brian Howe, a staff attorney with the Ohio Innocence Project.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: An Ohio man has been freed from prison after spending 39 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Ricky Jackson, a 59-year-old African-American man, had been jailed since 1975 on a murder conviction. The prosecution’s case was based on the testimony of a 13-year-old witness. After a 2011 investigation, the witness recanted his testimony, saying he had implicated Jackson and two others under police coercion. The witness, Eddie Vernon, said police had fed him the story and threatened him with the arrest of his parents if he didn’t cooperate. On Friday, Ricky Jackson was freed after prosecutors dropped the case.

RICKY JACKSON: How does it feel? It’s extraordinary. I’m very happy, needless to say. Words can’t express how I feel right now. I’m just glad to be out, glad to be a free man.

REPORTER: What are going to do? Where are you going to go?

RICKY JACKSON: Wow! I mean, you know, you sit in prison for so long, you think about this day. But when it actually comes, you don’t know what to do, but you just want to do something, you know, besides what you’ve been doing for 39 years.

REPORTER: When you heard the judge say an hour ago, "You’re a free man, goodbye," talk about what you were feeling. What was going on that we couldn’t see?

RICKY JACKSON: I mean, it was like an emotional roller coaster. You know, just, I mean, the English language doesn’t fit what I’m feeling right now. I mean, I’m just on an emotional high right now.

AMY GOODMAN: With nearly four decades wrongfully behind bars, Jackson is the longest-held U.S. prisoner to be exonerated. Another defendant in the case who served slightly less time, Wiley Bridgeman, has also been released.

For more, we go to Cincinnati, Ohio, where we’re joined by Ricky Jackson and his lawyer, Brian Howe, a staff attorney with the Ohio Innocence Project.

Ricky and Brian, welcome to Democracy Now! Ricky Jackson, how does it feel to be free?

RICKY JACKSON: Good morning. I’m still getting used to it. You know, it’s almost been a week, and I’m still getting adjusted and acclimated to being out here and not being inside those closed walls, you know, enclosed walls.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And during all those years that you were behind bars, did you ever lose hope or expectation that you would finally be exonerated? Could you tell us about the emotional trials you went through all that time?

RICKY JACKSON: Well, like I said previously, it’s constantly a battle trying to stay positive, and some days you get to the point where you don’t think you’re going to make it. And, you know, it’s just an up-and-down-type situation. You know, you’re always up and down. But to answer your question, there were times when I thought, you know, this is it for me. I’m not—you know, this is it.

AMY GOODMAN: Ricky, tell us your story, what happened 40 years ago and how it was that a 13-year-old child was the key witness against you, who now, very ill, 40 years later, wanted to come clean.

RICKY JACKSON: Well, the case happened in 1975. I was 18 years old at the time. And there was a neighborhood store that was robbed by three assailants. And somehow, Edward Vernon became involved in the case. Apparently he went to the police and told them that he was a witness and that he eventually identified myself, Ronnie Bridgeman and Wiley Bridgeman as the assailants.

A couple of days later, we were arrested, taken downtown and arraigned, held before a lineup. And we weren’t picked out in the lineup, but unbeknownst to us—we didn’t know this, we thought we were—you know, everything was OK. Nobody came out and said that "You guys are being charged," or anything. So we assumed we was getting our obligatory phone call after you’re arrested, and we thought we were going home. But that didn’t turn out to be the case.

And a few months later, we all went on trial. We were charged with capital crimes. And subsequently, we all lost our trials. We were sent to death row. We sentenced to die in the Ohio electric chair. We were all sent to death row, where we stayed and lingered and wondered and worried for two-and-a-half years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, there was a—I’m sorry, go ahead.

RICKY JACKSON: No, I was just—at that time, there was a lot of debate about the Ohio death penalty. So, as it turned out, they nullified the death penalty at that time, and everybody back there was given a life sentence in prison.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, there was a period of time when you were offered the possibility of parole. Could you talk about that and your insistence on your innocence?

RICKY JACKSON: Yes, sir. My attorney here, Mr. Brian Howe, he came to me one day, and he said, "Listen, Ricky, this is the situation. There’s a deal on the table. You can walk out of here now a free man if you will plead guilty to the charges you’re presently incarcerated for." I mean, and I have to admit that it was a tempting offer. At that time, I had been in prison so long, I didn’t even know what the sky looked like anymore. But, you know, it was just something inside of me that said, "You can’t do this. You’ve gone too long. You’ve struggled too hard. You can’t do this. You’re innocent. You know, don’t admit to something you didn’t do. You’re innocent." And that was the decision I made. It was the right decision, and really, it was the only decision that I could have made.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Brian Howe, could you talk about the process of exonerating Ricky Jackson, the role of some initial reporting on the case in a local newspaper and then the Innocence Project’s involvement, and the role of two people who at the time were schoolchildren on a bus, in terms of being able to get him exonerated?

BRIAN HOWE: Yes. Thanks, Juan. I mean, this case was really, literally, years in the making. You know, when the Ohio Innocence Project first got this case, it was before Ed Vernon had come forward and recanted. There were students there that had spoken with Ricky, that strongly and sincerely believed in his innocence. And they were passionate about the case, and that’s what kept things going.

Around three or four years ago, there was some really fantastic investigative journalism done by Kyle Swenson at the Cleveland Scene magazine. He continued to find things that suggested maybe that there was something wrong with the trial back in 1975, inconsistencies in Ed Vernon’s stories and leads that the police had towards other people.

That continued until eventually in 2013 Ed Vernon, in a hospital room, confessed to his pastor that he had lied in 1975, and he’d carried that weight with him for over 35, 36 years at that point. And his pastor encouraged him to come forward to the Innocence Project.

We continued to work on the case—I mean, we found schoolchildren who were with Ed Vernon on a school bus when the shooting happened—even as recently as a week before the hearing. So, you know, I mean, this has just been such an effort by so many different people—law students, over a dozen law students with the University of Cincinnati College of Law, the attorney on the case prior to me, Carrie Wood. So many people have put a lot of work into this case, and it’s just really something special to be sitting next to Ricky here today. It’s not something that we would have dreamed was possible a few weeks ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Ricky, I wanted to go back to that 2011 article published by the Cleveland Scene that laid out the weakness in the case against you. The article notes you were convicted based on this testimony of a 13-year-old boy with poor eyesight and conflicting stories, Eddie Vernon, now a grown man, has since filed an affidavit admitting he never saw the murder, also claims he was threatened by police into identifying you as one of the murderers. Vernon told the Cleveland Scene, quote, "The detective said that I was too young to go to jail, but he would arrest my parents for perjury because I was backing out. My mom was sick at that time, and that really scared me. I didn’t want my parents to get in trouble over this." So, Ricky Jackson, now you are free. What are your plans for Thanksgiving?

RICKY JACKSON: I’m going to be with some good people here in Cincinnati—they prepared a nice dinner for me—and just going to relax and just enjoy the holiday, play some games, watch some football—just do normal people stuff, you know?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask Brian Howe, this whole issue of—we’re constantly seeing these stories of people who spend years in prison and then later are exonerated. But no one seems to be asking, "What’s wrong with our criminal justice system, that time and again we’re having these examples of a justice system that just didn’t bother to really seek the truth, but rather sought a conviction?"

BRIAN HOWE: Yes, I mean, you know, it’s a human system, and any system that’s run by human beings is always going to have errors. I think, as a country, we’ve decided to set the bar at a place where, hopefully, people—we’d prefer guilty people go free than innocent people be convicted, but obviously that doesn’t always happen. And lots of people who are trying to do a good job and are sincere in what they’re doing, including police and prosecutors, are human beings, and they make mistakes. And the more cases like this come out, the more aware I think that we are of the sort of mistakes that can lead to this, the problems with eyewitness identification, the problem with leading interviews—or leading questions in witness interviews, the sort of pressures that witnesses can be under. And so, hopefully, cases like this will mean that it’s more rare, moving forward, and people like Ricky don’t spend 39 years in prison for something they didn’t do.

AMY GOODMAN: Ricky Jackson, as you’re released from jail, Ferguson is on fire, and I was wondering if you have thoughts about this.

RICKY JACKSON: Well, first of all, it’s a terrible tragedy, but unfortunately, it’s something that seems to be re-occurring in America all too often, you know, and I just think that everyone’s lost the ability to—or just doesn’t want to talk to each other. I mean, I think it all begins with dialogue, you know? And sometimes you have to listen to the other side to get an understanding of the entire situation. I just think it needs to be more dialogue.

AMY GOODMAN: Two brothers were convicted with you. Brian Howe, what has happened to them?

RICKY JACKSON: Well, honestly, they’re struggling right now. I mean, they’re really struggling right now, you know? I mean, it hasn’t been easy for these guys since they got out, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Brian Howe—well, no, let me ask Ricky Jackson. You faced death. How close did you come to death, and what were your thoughts as an innocent man about to be put to death by the state?

RICKY JACKSON: Well, you know, when you’re sentenced to death, they give you a death date. And I was back there to two-and-a-half years, and mine came up. And I heard a prison guard coming down the walkway, and I thought they were coming for me, because it was my day. But really, they give you this yellow piece of paper that says that you’ve had a stay of execution, pending a Ohio Supreme Court decision. And it was just—it was just—you were always on edge. You know, it was just a terrible situation to be in, thinking that you could be dead any day now, you know? It was just a horrible situation to be in.

AMY GOODMAN: So the state almost took your life. They did take 40 years of your life. Will you be compensated?

RICKY JACKSON: I have no idea, ma’am. It’s a long process. Mr. Howe could probably answer that question better than I could.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Brian, you have 10 seconds.

BRIAN HOWE: Well, it is a long road. You know, certainly, I think he deserves something for the 40 years that was taken from him, but that’s something we’ll just have to see as things move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s amazing already, $43,000 has been raised just from people who care about you, Ricky Jackson. We will continue to follow to see what the state will do. Ricky Jackson has just been released from prison after 39 years for a crime he did not commit, longest-held man who’s now been exonerated. His lawyer, Brian Howe, a staff attorney with the Ohio Innocence Project. Happy holidays to you both.


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