By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - An Ohio man who spent 39 years in prison for a murder he did not commit was freed on Friday after becoming the longest-held U.S. prisoner to be exonerated.
"Life is full of small victories and this is a big one," Cuyahoga County Judge Richard McMonagle told Ricky Jackson, 57, before his release on Friday. McMonagle's father, George McMonagle, was the original judge in Jackson's case in 1975.
A second man convicted in the case, Wiley Bridgeman, 60, was released shortly after Jackson on Friday after charges were dismissed. Bridgeman had first been freed in 2002 but was imprisoned again for a probation violation, defense attorneys said.
After his release, Jackson smiled and hugged his attorney, Brian Howe, and other former inmates who had been exonerated as a result of efforts by the Cincinnati-based Ohio Innocence Project.
Jackson was convicted along with Bridgeman and Bridgeman's brother, Kwame Ajamu, for the 1975 murder of Harold Franks, a Cleveland-area money order salesman, after 12-year-old Eddie Vernon testified he saw the attack, according to court documents.
Vernon, now 53, recanted his testimony and told authorities he had never actually witnessed the crime. There was no other evidence linking Jackson to the killing.
Other witnesses confirmed Jackson, a teenager at the time, was on a school bus when the slaying occurred. He had originally been sentenced to death but the sentence was vacated because of a paperwork error.
The Ohio Innocence Project and the National Registry of Exonerations said Jackson's 39 years marked the longest a prisoner had been held before being exonerated.
When asked how he kept his spirits up in prison, Jackson said he always believed he would be vindicated.
"Just because you are in prison doesn't mean you have to be a prisoner," Jackson told reporters outside the county sheriff's office. "If you know you are innocent you have to keep fighting."
Ajamu, who was released from prison in 2003 after serving his sentence, has filed a request for a new trial in the case. Ajamu wept in court on Friday to see his brother, Wiley Bridgeman, exonerated.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Bill Trott)