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Wiley Bridgeman

Other Ohio Cases with Perjury or False Accusations
On May 19, 1975, 59-year-old Harold Franks, a money order salesman, left a neighborhood grocery store on Fairhill Road in Cleveland, Ohio and was confronted by two men demanding his briefcase. When Franks resisted, they clubbed him on the head with a pipe and splashed acid in his face. One of the robbers then shot him twice in the chest, and fired a shot through the store’s glass front door.  Franks died, and 58-year-old Ann Robinson, co-owner of the store, who was shot once in the neck, survived.

The two robbers fled with the briefcase containing about $425 and got into a green car parked down the street and escaped.

Within a week, police obtained a statement from 12-year-old Eddie Vernon, who identified the gunman as 18-year-old Ricky Jackson. Vernon told police that 17-year-old Ronnie Bridgeman, and Bridgeman’s 20-year-old brother, Wiley, who drove the getaway car, were with Jackson.

Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers—none of whom had a criminal record—were arrested on May 25, 1975. They were charged with aggravated murder, aggravated attempted murder and aggravated robbery.

All three were tried separately in Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas in August 1975. No physical or forensic evidence linked any of them to the crime.

The prosecution’s case rested almost solely on the testimony of Vernon, who had turned 13 by the time he testified.

Vernon’s testimony was inconsistent. He initially told police that he was on the bus coming home from school when he saw the two men attack Franks as he got out of his car and walked to the store. Vernon testified at the trials, however, that he had already gotten off the bus when he saw the attack and that the attack occurred as Franks emerged from the store. Ann Robinson testified that she was shot in the neck by a bullet that pierced the store’s front door. She was unable to identify the robbers.

A 16-year-old neighborhood girl testified for the defense that she walked into the store just before the attack and saw two men outside the store. She said that neither of the two men were Jackson nor the Bridgeman brothers. Several of Vernon’s classmates testified that he was on the bus with them when they heard the gunshots and that none of them were able to see the robbers.

Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman were convicted in August 1975. Ronnie Bridgeman was convicted in September 1975. All three denied they were involved in the crime. All presented witnesses who said they were elsewhere at the time it occurred—although they lived close enough to the store that they walked there after the shooting and were part of the crowd of about 100 people that had gathered.

All three were sentenced to death—just months after their arrest. Those sentences were later commuted to life in prison.

In 2002, Wiley Bridgeman was granted parole. Several weeks later, Wiley was living in a shelter in Cleveland when he had an accidental encounter with Vernon, who was working as a security guard at the shelter. Afterward, Vernon’s supervisor asked him about the encounter and Vernon explained that he had been the witness whose testimony convicted Wiley. The supervisor told Vernon to report the contact to Wiley’s parole officer because the contact was prohibited by the terms of Wiley’s parole. Vernon did so and as a result, Wiley’s parole was revoked and he was sent back to prison after being free for only about three months.

In January 2003, Ronnie Bridgeman was released from prison on parole.

In 2011, Cleveland Scene magazine published a detailed examination of the case and highlighted the numerous inconsistencies in Vernon’s testimony, and the absence of any other evidence linking Jackson and the Bridgeman’s to the crime. The article pointed out that Vernon had been paid $50 by Ann Robinson’s husband to testify at the trial—a fact that Vernon had failed to mention in his testimony.

Kyle Swenson, the reporter who wrote the article, attempted to interview Vernon, but he refused to talk about the case. Swenson reached out to Vernon’s pastor, Arthur Singleton. When Singleton mentioned to Vernon that a reporter wanted to talk to him, Vernon brushed off Singleton, telling him to ignore the reporter.

Months later, Swenson sent his article to Singleton, who asked Vernon about it. Vernon refused to talk about it. In 2013, Singleton paid a visit to Vernon in a hospital where Vernon was being treated for high blood pressure.

Singleton later said in a sworn affidavit that he asked Vernon again about the article. “Edward Vernon told me that he lied to the police when he said he had witnessed the murder in 1975, and he had put three innocent men in prison for murder,” Singleton said in the affidavit. “He told me that he tried to back out of the lie at the time of the line-up, but he was only a child and the police told him it was too late to change his story.”

Singleton said that Vernon broke down and wept. “I could see the weight…being lifted from his shoulders,” Singleton said.

Prompted by the recantation, Brian Howe and Mark Godsey, attorneys with the Ohio Innocence Project, filed a petition for a new trial on behalf of Jackson. Similar petitions were later filed on behalf of Wiley Bridgeman and Ronnie Bridgeman, who had since changed his name to Kwame Ajamu.

The Ohio Innocence Project’s re-investigation of the case uncovered evidence that when Vernon attempted to recant his identification of the three defendants, police intimidated him to testify falsely. The police had never disclosed to the defense attorneys for the three defendants that Vernon attempted to recant his accusation prior to the trials.

Police reports obtained by the Ohio Innocence Project also showed that police considered two other men, Paul Gardenshire and Ishmael Hixon, as suspects in the crime, but their investigation of those two men was terminated when Vernon identified Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers.

The license plate on the green car seen speeding away from the crime was matched to a car belonging to Hixon, whose police record included a robbery and shooting a year earlier. In 1976, a year after the Franks murder, Hixon pled guilty to more than a dozen counts of aggravated robbery.

In November 2014, Judge Richard McMonagle held a hearing on Jackson’s motion for a new trial. Vernon testified that police fed him the details of the crime. “I don’t have any knowledge about what happened at the scene of the crime,” he testified. “Everything was a lie. They were all lies.”'

Vernon told the judge that he was on the bus when he heard two pops that sounded like firecrackers. The bus was close to the store where the crime occurred, but not near enough that he could see anything that took place, Vernon testified. But based on a rumor he heard on the street, Vernon said he went to the scene and told police that Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers committed the crime.

“I’m thinking, ‘I'm doing the right thing,’”' Vernon testified. “I told the officer, ‘I know who did it.’” He testified that he tried to recant, but the detectives took him into a room and told him he was too young to go to jail, but they would arrest his parents for perjury because he was backing out. So, Vernon said, he agreed to testify at the trials.

On November 18, 2014, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty said the state would no longer contest the motion for a new trial. “The state concedes the obvious,” McGinty said.
 
McMonagle adjourned the hearing until November 21, 2014. At that time, he granted motions for a new trial filed by Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman and vacated both men’s convictions. The prosecution then dismissed the charges. Wiley Bridgeman and Jackson were released.
 
Jackson had served 39 years, three months and nine days—the longest time in prison of any exonerated defendant in U.S. history.
 
On December 9, 2014, Ajamu's conviction was vacated and the prosecution dismissed the charges against him.
 

In December 2014, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office said it would not oppose compensation awards to Jackson, Bridgeman and Ajamu because they believe the men are innocent. In February, 2015, they were declared innocent by a judge. Jackson was preliminarily awarded $1 million in compensation pending a final computation by the Ohio Court of Claims.

In 2016, the Court of Claims awarded Bridgeman $2.4 million and awarded Ajamu $1.98 million. In April 2016, Jackson settled his lawsuit against the State of Ohio for $2.65 million.

– Maurice Possley


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Posting Date: 11/21/2014
Last Updated: 4/11/2016
State:Ohio
County:Cuyahoga
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1975
Convicted:1975
Exonerated:2014
Sentence:Death
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:20
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No