CLEVELAND (AP) — A man convicted with his brother and his childhood friend of killing a businessman in 1975 said Thursday he's sorry his mother isn't alive to see that the three former death row inmates will soon walk free together because the only witness against them has recanted the damning testimony he gave as a 13-year-old.
Kwame Ajamu, his brother and the friend, Ricky Jackson, had been convicted at separate trials for the shooting death of the businessman outside a corner store in Cleveland. They were barely old enough to shave when judges sent them to death row. Ajamu — then known as Ronnie Bridgeman — was 17, Jackson was 19 and Wiley Bridgeman was 20.
On Tuesday, Ajamu got a call from Jackson from a Cleveland courtroom where Eddie Vernon, who as a teenager testified at the men's trials, had recanted his testimony nearly 40 years later.
"It just blew my mind!" Ajamu said.
Cuyahoga County prosecutors filed a motion Thursday to dismiss charges against the three men. With Vernon's testimony in doubt, prosecutors conceded on Tuesday they no longer had a case.
Ajamu got out of prison in January 2003. Jackson was at a prison work camp but is now in county jail. Wiley Bridgeman is at a northwest Ohio prison. If transportation issues are worked out and Bridgeman is brought to Cleveland, all three could be reunited Friday. Ajamu finds that prospect "mind boggling."
He spent his 18th birthday on death row. His mother, a brother and a sister died while he was in prison. His brother got to within three weeks of an execution date.
Both brothers' sentences were commuted to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1978. Jackson's sentence was commuted to life a year earlier because of an error in the jury instructions. Bridgeman was released from prison in 2002 but was sent back on a parole violation.
"These last few months, I've been 17 all over again," Ajamu said. "I had to relive in my mind and heart my mother walking down the street the last few days of her life with that shame. She knew we didn't do it, but the world didn't."
Despite spending 27 years in prison for a crime he maintains he did not commit, Ajamu says he tries not to dwell on the negative. He says he figures "there's always a story worse than mine." And he says he forgave Vernon years ago because he knew such a young boy could not have concocted the story he told at trial on his own.
In 2011, Scene Magazine wrote an article about the case that called into question Vernon's testimony. But it wasn't until a minister visited Vernon at a hospital in 2013 that Vernon came clean. In an affidavit submitted by the Ohio Innocence Project, which represents Jackson, Vernon said he was coerced and threatened by detectives into implicating the three men after repeating gossip he'd heard to a police officer. Vernon has acknowledged that he was on a school bus parked down the block when the shooting occurred and did not see Jackson or the Bridgemans kill anyone.
Vernon said detectives threatened to arrest his parents if he did not stick to the story they wanted him to tell. There was no physical evidence tying the three men to the slaying, only the boy's testimony.
According to court filings, detectives had solid leads. A 16-year-old who knew Jackson and the two brothers from the neighborhood testified that she saw two strange men outside the store when she went inside to buy chips that day. She said she hid at the back of the store when gunshots rang out.
A police informer gave detectives a license plate number that matched a vehicle described as the getaway car. They questioned the man but did not pursue charges. The mother of another possible suspect called police to tell them she thought her son had something to do with the killing of businessman Harry Franks and that he'd stolen his grandfather's .38-calliber revolver. Franks was killed with a .38.
Attorney Terry Gilbert, who represents Ajamu and his brother, thanked prosecutors for dismissing the charges.
"They're doing the right thing," he said. "They're also to be congratulated for recognizing that there was an injustice here. It's not often you see prosecutors rise to the occasion to undo a wrong that has existed for 40 years."