In late 1975, 19-year-old Ricky Jackson was sentenced to die by electrocution. Almost 40 years later, his conviction was overturned, and he walked out the front door of the Cuyahoga County courthouse a free man. Ricky is now the longest serving American exoneree on record.
The crime that sent him to prison was the brutal murder and robbery of a white money order salesman named Harold Franks. In May 1975, two men attacked Franks as he left a corner store. They threw acid in his face and shot him multiple times in a struggle over his briefcase. The men also shot the store's owner, before fleeing down the street and into a green getaway car.
Just after the shooting, a crowd of close to a hundred ended up gathering at the scene, including a 12-year-old boy, Eddie Vernon. Like most of the neighborhood, Eddie was close with the store owner who had been nearly killed. He wanted to help, and he told police he knew what happened. Based on his story, police arrested Ricky, Ronnie Bridgeman and Ronnie's brother Wiley for the crime.
In his initial statements, Eddie seemed reluctant to provide details. When he did, he got many of the major facts about the crime wrong. Police, however, interpreted this reluctance as authenticity, and they latched onto Eddie very early as the critical witness in the case. Evidence pointing other directions was abandoned, including witnesses who saw the shooters and told police they were not the defendants, and witnesses who placed Eddie on a school bus during the shooting. Incredibly, police were even able to match the license plate number of the alleged green getaway car to a known felon in the area -- with no connection to any of the three defendants. By that time, however, police appeared to have made up their minds and were content to rest the entire case on Eddie Vernon's young shoulders. His testimony alone was enough for the jury to convict and sentence all three to death.
In the late 1970s, all three had their sentences commuted to life in prison, when the Supreme Court held Ohio's procedures for capital sentencing were unconstitutional.
In 2014, the Ohio Innocence Project filed for a new trial on Ricky Jackson's behalf. This past November, Eddie Vernon -- now in his early 50s -- admitted in emotional testimony that he had never seen the crime. According to Eddie, he was initially just trying to be helpful and passing along rumors to police. His mother knew he was lying, and convinced him just days after the crime that he needed to set the record straight and tell the truth. So when Eddie went to a police line-up just days after the crime, the twelve year old tried to back out. He refused to pick any of the three arrested men.
According to his testimony in 2014, police were furious. They took young Eddie into a back room, pounded on the table, screamed at him, and threatened that his parents could go to jail if he backed out. Eddie relented and picked the three men out of a lineup. Over a number of follow up interviews, Eddie was fed details of the crime through leading questions. By the time of trial, his story was consistent with other actual witnesses to the crime.
At the end of a two day hearing in 2014, to their immense credit, county prosecutors conceded that the case against Ricky Jackson should be dismissed. Last Tuesday, a judge formally recognized that Ricky and his two co-defendants never committed the crime for which all three were nearly executed.
Wrongful convictions can happen for dozens of different reasons. Junk science. Faulty witness memories. Tunnel vision or overzealousness by police and prosecutors. Most of these cases involve human beings who are trying to reach the right result, but who have made good faith errors about the facts. Sometimes they may have become biased about facts in ways that are difficult to undo. Only rarely is there evidence of actual intentional corruption. Of course, this is small consolation to Ricky and the hundreds of other exonerees who have spent significant portions of their lives in prison. But it does matter when it comes to how we can best prevent these miscarriages from happening in the future.
The basic blueprint for meaningful reform is already taking shape. Progress is slowly being made in recognizing and rejecting junk forensic science like microscopic hair comparison or "bite mark" analysis. Video recording interviews is becoming ubiquitous. Procedures are being developed that address hidden biases, not only from witnesses, but from police and forensic analysts. New investigation procedures can avoid tainting fragile witness memories by use of double-blind line up procedures. There is much left to be done, of course, but even small reforms may have made a difference in Ricky's case.
Of course, better procedures will not prevent all wrongful convictions. There is nothing to suggest that overt racism led to Ricky Jackson's conviction. But like most criminal cases in the country, it is impossible to divorce the circumstances of Ricky Jackson's conviction from the issue of race. Juries are more likely to give the death penalty for crimes where the victim is white and the accused is black. Perhaps the same factors make them more likely to convict in those circumstances, even where the evidence is weak. Overlapping issues of race and class mean that African-Americans defendants are forced to rely on overworked public defenders at greater rates than white defendants. Black people are more likely to be subject to wrongful convictions, not because of anything particularly special about these cases, but often for the same systematic reasons that lurk in the background of almost every criminal case in this country. In that sense, Ricky's case is more mundane. These problems are more than procedural, they are societal, and fixing them will almost certainly require changes beyond the criminal justice system.
This post is part of the "28 Black Lives That Matter" series produced by The Huffington Post for Black History Month. Each day in February, this series will shine a spotlight on one African-American individual who made headlines in 2014 -- mostly in circumstances we all wished had not taken place. This series will pay tribute to these individuals and address the underlying circumstances that led to their unfortunate outcomes. To follow the conversation on Twitter, view #28BlackLives -- and to see all the posts as part of our Black History Month coverage, read here.