Wiley Bridgeman

Wiley BridgemanWiley Bridgeman was 20 years old and living in Cleveland, Ohio, when he was sentenced to death in 1975 for the murder-robbery of a money order salesman named Harold Franks. The sole evidence against Wiley, and his co-defendants, brother Ronnie Bridgeman (aka Kwame Ajamu) and friend Ricky Jackson, was the false, coerced eyewitness testimony of a 13-year-old boy named Eddie Vernon, who was to later play a central role in exonerating the three men. No physical or forensic evidence linked any of them to the crime, none of them had any prior criminal record, and defense witnesses provided all three with credible alibis. Nevertheless, all three were sentenced to death just months after their arrest, later commuted to life without parole.

In 2002, Wiley was granted parole. Several weeks later, he was living in a shelter in Cleveland when he had an ill-fated, accidental encounter with Vernon, who was working as a security guard at the shelter. Vernon's 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 Vernon did so and as a result, Wiley’s parole was revoked and he was sent back to prison after being free for only about three months.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 2011, Cleveland Scene magazine published a detailed examination of the case and highlighted the numerous inconsistencies in young Eddie Vernon’s testimony, and the absence of any other evidence linking Jackson and the Bridgemans to the crime. The reporter reached out to the pastor of Vernon in an attempt to talk to him, but Vernon still refused to openly talk about the case. The pastor later said in a sworn affidavit that “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. 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.” At the urging of his pastor, Vernon publicly recanted his story, setting in motion the exonerations of Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman, and Ricky Jackson.

Prompted by the recantation, 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.

In November 2014, Judge Richard McMonagle granted motions for a new trial filed by Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman and vacated their convictions. The prosecution then dismissed the charges against both of them and they were released. On December 9, 2014, Kwame Ajamu's conviction was vacated and the prosecution dismissed the charges against him.

Wiley Bridgeman by

Wiley Bridgeman on the day of his release, by Cleveland photographer Frank J. Lanza

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