(Editor’s note: The author, Carey Hoffman, is Director of Communications for the Ohio Innocence Project.)
Every parent aspires for the best for their child.
That was true for Rickey Jackson’s parents. It was also true for Harold Franks, the Cleveland salesman killed in 1975 that Jackson and two friends were wrongfully convicted of murdering.
Of course, it is just as true for myself and my wife with our two daughters.
That’s why I was pleased our youngest, Emily, a junior at Miami University, was going to have the opportunity to hear Rickey Jackson speak when he visited her campus in October as part of a program put on by the Miami chapter of OIP-u, one of seven chapters at Ohio universities that serve as undergraduate advocacy organizations affiliated with the Ohio Innocence Project.
The realities of four decades lost to injustice can become very hard to miss when their embodiment is sitting 15 feet away from you, telling you a story of a life’s journey that you’ll never forget.
Emily and I first talked about how our justice system has the potential for wrongful convictions when she was home last summer. We wanted to binge watch a show together, and Netflix’s “The Staircase” was being touted as one of the biggest offerings of the summer. The documentary series tells the story of novelist Michael Peterson, who was convicted in 2003 of murdering his wife, after she was found surrounded by blood from head wounds at the bottom of a narrow staircase. (Peterson served eight years, was granted a new trial in 2011, and ultimately ended up entering an Alford plea in 2017, a legal option that spared him from having to serve any more prison time.)
Was “The Staircase” a case of murder or was it some sort of accident? By the end of the first episode, I remember Emily announcing, “Oh, he did it. You can tell he’s guilty just by looking at him.” At that point, I knew we had picked the right show to watch for the summer, regardless of what Peterson’s fate would be.
Emily learned in school the textbook version of America’s justice system. But even a strong system built on a foundation of laws is open to both presumptions and presumptive behavior, like the kind my daughter was exhibiting. These presumptions reflect human nature and not the standard of presumed innocence until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that our laws guarantee to all citizens.
It’s within such presumptions that the seeds for wrongful convictions are found.
The circumstances that sent Rickey to Ohio’s Death Row seem almost preposterous now, and yet they really happened. Harold Franks was tragically and brutally murdered outside a store he had just visited in Cleveland by three men, who also shot through a plate glass window and wounded the store’s female co-owner in the neck with a bullet. Beyond that basic description, police investigators were turning up very little information.
No physical evidence was found tying anyone to the scene. No murder weapon was ever found. In fact, the police investigation didn’t gain momentum until they learned of a 12-year-old boy, Eddie Vernon, who said he saw who committed the crime. He said Rickey was the shooter, and that his friends, brothers Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman, were his accomplices.
After Vernon’s interview, the police came to the Bridgeman house to arrest the brothers and Rickey, who happened to be there that night. They manhandled Rickey as they put him under arrest, and in the first of several very emotional moments he shared with the Miami students, he described what he saw once he was marched out of the house. “I looked down the street,” he recalled, with his voice breaking, “and I saw my family stretched out on the sidewalk, with shotguns pointing at their heads.”
Rickey and the Bridgeman brothers were taken by police down to the local headquarters for a police lineup. Eddie Vernon was brought in, but by that point, he had backed off his prior identification of the three as the perpetrators. Subsequent investigation decades later when the Ohio Innocence Project investigated Rickey’s case revealed that when Vernon refused to reaffirm what he had previously told the detectives, the detectives put him in a room and coerced him to repeat the same identifications, threatening that if he didn’t, his parents could be sent to jail for perjury.
What 12-year-old could stand up to that kind of pressure?
Vernon’s testimony was the only evidence presented at Rickey’s trial tying him to the scene. A 16-year-old girl from the neighborhood testified for the defense that she had been in the store just before the crime and saw two men waiting outside of the store, neither of whom were Rickey or the Bridgemans. Several other schoolmates of Eddie Vernon’s testified for the defense that at the time they heard the shots fired, all of them were on a passing school bus and none of them had a view as to what was happening. Other defense witnesses testified that all three accused were with them at the time of the shooting – down the street and close enough that when they heard the ruckus, they came and joined the crowd watching the scene, but definitely not at the store when the shootings occurred.
None of it mattered. Three juries in separate trials found each defendant guilty of murder and sent them to Death Row. None of the three had previous criminal records. Rickey had been in the U.S. Marines, got a medical discharge for a bad back, and after treatment, was intending to re-enlist. Wiley Bridgeman was in the Army National Guard and Ronnie Bridgeman was in the process of joining the Navy.
One thing Rickey remembers most vividly from his trial was seeing Harold Franks’ widow in the courtroom, and she had her young son with her. “The gentleman’s widow was in that courtroom with that little kid, and that was really heartbreaking,” Rickey told the students. “You could see the hate in her eyes, but I didn’t take it personal. What really did hurt, though, was knowing that she was being bamboozled.”
What Rickey shared with Emily and the other Miami students next was about the most difficult period you could imagine, spending the next 39 years of his life in prison, but it was also – somehow – uplifting.
He described arriving on Death Row and being locked in a tiny cell for all but one hour per week, when he was taken to shower. “Something about that experience shaped me into who I am now,” he told the students. “In a situation like that, you have to get in touch with yourself.”
Which wasn’t to say he wasn’t angry, because he was. After two years on Death Row, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 declared Ohio’s rewritten death penalty law unconstitutional, so the 97 prisoners who had been sentenced to death since 1974 all had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Rickey recalled lots of celebration from his fellow Death Row inmates, but says “I didn’t do any. I never thought I would die in prison. I was more mad than anything. I was a person and I mattered. You just can’t take my life like that.”
When he left Death Row and moved to the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville and lived in less restrictive conditions, he pitted his anger against advice that his mother, Essie Copeland, had given him, presumably in one of those moments where she just wanted what was best for her child: “My mother said no matter what happens, don’t let them make you a prisoner.”
What would that mean in his new surroundings, where he had to handle the inherent violence and dysfunctionality within prisons and not succumb to it, but instead find a way to put meaning into his life that still included the possibility of never leaving prison?
Even Rickey was surprised by the biggest factor that helped him turn that corner – reading.
Looking for new outlets that could change his life, he joined a prison reading circle. At the first couple of meetings, he kept his guard up and didn’t say much. But then the other inmates told him if he wanted to keep coming back, he had to participate in the book discussions.
He started talking, he kept reading and soon he couldn’t stop. Where other inmates would fill their cells with radios or whatever other conveniences were allowed, Rickey got to the point where his cell was overflowing with books. He would read a book a day. If it was a really good book, he told the Miami students, he sometimes would stay up after curfew, leaning against his cell door where the small security light out in the common area was shining in. He would keep reading and, sometimes not even realize what time it was until reality intruded in the form of his next day’s breakfast being slid underneath his door.
On occasion, if he had a lot of books he wanted to read, he says he actually violated small rules that he knew would get him put in solitary confinement. What was dreaded punishment for others made the perfect reading sanctuary for him.
“Reading, more than anything else, saved me,” Rickey says.
Now on a more positive path, he had momentum in his life. His first thought was that Lucasville needed to upgrade its prison library. He got permission from the prison administration and reached out to Barnes & Noble and other booksellers to see if they had extra inventory they would be willing to share. Their answer was they did. It became a bit overwhelming for all involved, however, when six semi trucks showed up at the gates with books for the Lucasville library project.
Rickey then started working on plans to help other Ohio correctional facilities get the books delivered to refresh their libraries.
After that, when he had been relocated to the Grafton Correctional Institution in northern Ohio, he launched a program to get access for trainers from the American Red Cross to come and offer emergency First Aid and CPR certification classes to inmates. It took a lot of jumping through hoops to make happen, but the program came together. That effort actually earned Rickey an award certification from President George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation.
His motivation was simple: It was still his life.
“Growth was important to me in prison,” he said to the Miami students. “I saw a lot of guys who couldn’t grow. All the things I wanted to do with my life were things at that time I couldn’t do, but maybe I could do those things for other people.”
Rickey then talked about another impact prison had on him, something that would take a while to shake off. “In 2008, they came to me one day and told me my mother died,” he says, with emotion again overtaking his voice. “All that time being stoic, I couldn’t feel anything. My mother just died and I felt nothing, because that’s part of how you have to be in order to survive in prison.”
Glimmers of daylight began to creep back into Rickey’s life in 2011, 36 years after he had first been incarcerated. A publication called Cleveland Scene did an extensive story on the skimpy circumstances that had gotten Rickey and the Bridgeman brothers convicted. Among details turned up in their investigation that had previously been unknown to those working on Rickey’s behalf was that the husband of the woman injured in the shooting had paid $50 to the 12-year-old, Eddie Vernon, to get him to testify against the three accused men.
Vernon didn’t want to talk about it, but he did confess about that time to his pastor, Arthur Singleton, that he felt tremendous guilt for having given false testimony which sent the men to prison. The pastor got Vernon to sign a statement to that effect, which was enough to help get the Ohio Innocence Project working on Rickey’s case.
Further investigative work by the OIP showed that Cleveland police had actually been looking at two other suspects in the early days of the investigation, but dropped that pursuit once Vernon made the initial identifications of Rickey and the Bridgemans. It also came out that a green car was seen speeding away from the murder scene, and that the license plate matched that of a car driven by one of the two other suspects, a man with a criminal record which included a previous conviction for a robbery and shooting.
In 2014, a hearing was held where Vernon completely recanted his testimony against Rickey. Three days later after a second hearing, the charges were dismissed and Rickey was once again a free man – 39 years, three months and nine days later.
What has happened since could hardly make up for what was lost, but even by the standards of most of the nearly 2,300 people freed since 1989 through the efforts of the innocence movement, Rickey’s attitude is exceptional.
When he was asked how he isn’t bitter, he says he chooses to look at it this way: “I’m tired of being mad. You can’t be both mad and happy at the same time. I’m ready to be happy. Being angry would be the chicken’s way out. I went into prison when I was 18 and now I’m 61. I don’t have a lot of time to goof around.”
He met with and accepted an apology from Eddie Vernon. On June 24, 2017, he married, taking Clarissa Jackson to be his wife. They have a nice house with a pool in a quiet, tree-filled community, which is just how Rickey once dreamed he would live his life. He is now also a step-dad to her young kids, the most poignant kind of experience that was taken away from him.
“I have a great life. I beg people to not feel sorry for me,” Rickey says. “It was my lot in life. Everyone, no matter who they are, has something. Honestly, this was the life I always wanted. It was worth it. You will be rewarded.”
You could feel genuine amazement in the room in Upham Hall as a man who had so much taken from him talks about the importance of attitude and optimism for the future. I wonder what my daughter is thinking across the room as she takes this in.
Later, she told me.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was so inspired by Rickey. I thought going in there was no way his story could possibly relate to my own life, but after hearing him talk, it makes you realize that everyone has the same struggle,” Emily says. “We all have to overcome obstacles and crappy things that happen to us, but you have to make the destination worth it.”
She also told me she understands now that the justice system unfortunately doesn’t operate the same for everyone, and that there are places where people are judged guilty even before they enter a courtroom.
“Your goal has to just be as happy as you can at the end of every day, and that will give you the courage to get through the bad times,” Emily now believes. “Rickey has obviously had to overcome way harder things in his life than I will ever face, but he has found his way to happiness, and so can everyone else.”
As her father, knowing that her time at college now includes this lesson makes me very happy indeed.
While we were leaving Upham Hall, Rickey shared with us one more piece of news, the kind of thing that makes all the difference in how you look at the world and try and decide if life is indeed fair – fair enough to make Rickey’s optimism the right approach for our own lives.
Next May, Rickey Jackson is going to become a father for the first time. At age 61, he’s going to go through life’s most profound experience.
Every parent aspires for the best for their child. Rickey’s child is going to have a dad who can teach those lessons better than anyone else I know.