CLEVELAND, Ohio – Ricky Jackson is headed for freedom, 39 years after a boy lied to authorities and said Jackson and two other men killed a money-order collector at a Cleveland grocery store.
The lie helped a jury convict Jackson in 1975. He has been in prison until Tuesday, when Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty told Judge Richard McMonagle that the case against Jackson had fallen apart – based on the recantation of Eddie Vernon, who, at 12, helped build the case against Jackson. Prosecutors dismissed the case.
“The state concedes the obvious,” McGinty said.
Jackson broke into loud sobs, his face buried in his handcuffed hands.
“I can’t believe this is over,” Jackson cried. He thanked his attorneys from the Ohio Innocence Project, Brian Howe and Mark Godsey, and a team of supporters. When someone called Jackson’s family, his eyes, soaked from tears, beamed.
“It’s over,” Jackson yelled into the phone. “I’m coming home. I’m coming home. Be here to get me Friday, please. Let everybody know.”
After the call, Jackson said he wanted to drop.
“I didn’t expect this to happen,” he said. “I really didn’t.”
Jackson, 57, of Cleveland, is expected to leave prison Friday after the paperwork for his release is completed. He was seeking a new trial based on Vernon’s attempt to correct a lie about what he claimed he saw May 19, 1975.
This week, Vernon told McMonagle that he had lied to police, prosecutors and juries when he was a boy. What began as an attempt to please others and help authorities, spiraled into a web of lies that put Jackson and his friends, Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman, in prison.
Wiley Bridgeman is still behind bars. Attorneys Terry Gilbert and David Mills, who represent the brothers, also had asked for a new trial, based on Vernon’s new testimony. They are expected to ask McGinty to drop the case against the brothers, as well.
“All the information was fed to me,” Vernon said. “I don’t have any knowledge about what happened at the scene of the crime.”
Later he said, “Everything was a lie. They were all lies.”
Vernon testified that he was with other school children on a bus when he heard two pops that sounded like firecrackers. The bus was close to the Fairmont Cut-Rite on Fairhill Road, a street now called Stokes Boulevard, but it was not near the vicinity where he could see anything that took place, Vernon testified. Others on the bus also testified that Vernon couldn’t see anything.
But based on a friend’s word, Vernon went to the scene and told authorities that Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers committed the crime, a vicious attack on Harold Franks.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m doing the right thing,”’ Vernon testified. “I told the officer, ‘I know who did it.”’
Authorities said two men attacked Franks as he walked to the store. They beat him, threw acid in his face and one of the men shot him twice with a .38-caliber handgun. The shooter also fired a round that hit Anna Robinson, the wife of the store’s owner. The men stole Franks’ briefcase and fled to a waiting car.
There was no evidence linking the three men to the crime. Vernon said that once he told authorities the names of the three and the fact that he saw the slaying, Cleveland police fed him information about the crime and what happened.
Juries convicted Jackson and the Bridgemans. Ronnie Bridgeman served more than 25 years in prison, while his brother remains there. Vernon said he hid the lies for years, saying the detectives told him that if he mentioned what he did, they would put his parents in prison for perjury.
On Monday, prosecutors were skeptical of Vernon. Mary McGrath, an assistant county prosecutor, said others in the case corroborated Vernon’s story, including a man whom she said saw Vernon at a bus station near the Cut-Rite store.
She pointed to Vernon’s statement that he gave police the day after the shooting. Robinson, McGrath said, was still in the hospital. The prosecutor said Vernon’s description to police was extremely accurate.
“Who knew this information other than you and Mrs. Robinson?” McGrath said.
“How would I know?” Vernon said.
“Because you were there,” McGrath said.
By Tuesday morning, the prosecutor’s case had weakened, as other students who were on the bus with Vernon – now adults – told McMonagle that there was no way he could have seen what took place.
Jackson also took the stand. He again professed his innocence.
Vernon came forward after he spoke with his pastor, the Rev. Anthony Singleton of the Emmanuel Christian Center, last year. He admitted that he never saw anything; he said he instantly became relieved. The admission came two years after Scene Magazine delved into the case and questioned Vernon’s testimony.
A spokesman for McGinty’s office said it does not see bringing any charges against Vernon.
After the hearing, McGinty spoke with Howe and Godsey, the lawyers for Jackson.
“We were defending our case, and it didn’t hold up,” McGinty told the attorneys.
McMonagle, the judge, turned to the prosecutor and said: “You made the right choice.”