RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is For the Record. The year was 1975. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese as American troops and civilians were forced to evacuate the country. Ronald Reagan entered the presidential race against Gerald Ford. A show called "Saturday Night Live" debuted on NBC. And Ricky Jackson, Wiley Bridgeman and his younger brother, Ronnie, went to prison for the murder of an Ohio salesman. Their arrest was based on the testimony of one 12-year-old boy, Edward Vernon, who told the police he saw the young men flee the crime scene. They were charged and put away for life. Ronnie Bridgeman got out on parole in 2003. Last year, Edward Vernon recanted his testimony, and said he had made a false accusation under pressure from police. This month, after 39 years in prison, Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman were released.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Tonight, two men in Cleveland Ohio are walking free for the first time since 1975.
MARTIN: And this is what it sounded like in the courtroom when the decision came down.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)
UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: The case will be dismissed. Mr. Jackson, you're going to be free to go. May I suggest to you that life is filled with small victories, and this is a big one.
MARTIN: And when Ricky Jackson walked out of those prison doors...
MARTIN: For The Record today - wrongfully accused.
RICKY JACKSON: My name is Ricky Jackson. I was arrested at age 17.
KWAME AJAMU: My name is Kwame Ajamu. I was originally Ronnie Patrick Bridgeman. I was 17 years old when I was arrested.
WILEY BRIDGEMAN: And my name is Wiley Barewood Bridgeman. I was 20 years old in 1975.
MARTIN: And that's where this story begins - on May 17th of that same year.
JACKSON: That was the day my life stopped, so that day is in my mind forever.
AJAMU: Yeah, I remember the day as if it was just five minutes ago.
BRIDGEMAN: At the time of the crime, I was in my driveway washing my car. You know? Afternoon time, nothing to do - just a normal day.
MARTIN: A normal day that turned into anything but. Ricky Jackson was with his friend, Ronnie Bridgeman. They were walking in their neighborhood when they started hearing people talk about a crime.
JACKSON: There was a robbery up there and somebody had killed the gentleman and shot the store owner. And unbeknown to us, somebody was actually saying that we were the perpetrators - Ronnie Bridgeman, Wiley Bridgeman and myself.
MARTIN: All three of the young men were arrested, taken downtown, charged with murder and then put into prison to await trial. Here's Ricky Jackson.
JACKSON: I thought that this was just a mistake, and that they would get this straightened out. And we would be out of here within a day or two because everybody was reassuring me - my mother, my parents and stuff like that that, you know, this was going to be over. It was just a mistake. But it didn't turn out that way.
MARTIN: This is how Wiley Bridgeman remembers it.
BRIDGEMAN: No, I didn't expect to be in jail longer than a couple of days, myself. I said maybe they have a light up or maybe their detective records or whatever they do and, you know, we'd be dismissed.
MARTIN: That didn't happen. The testimony of one young boy was enough to sentence them to death. Jackson says the prosecutors tried to get them to take a plea deal to save their lives. They refused.
JACKSON: You know, that was the only thing we had to hold onto was our innocence. You know, and if we gave that up then the game was over with. So we had to hold onto that.
MARTIN: Ultimately their death sentence was lifted when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ohio's capital punishment law in 1978. Instead they were sentenced to life in prison for a crime they insisted they did not commit. Weeks turned into months turned into decades. And each man found his own coping mechanism in prison. For Ricky Jackson, it was gardening.
JACKSON: I had a greenhouse.
MARTIN: What did you grow in there?
JACKSON: We grew vegetables mainly, but we had an annual flower sale where we grow flowers. And we sell them to the correctional officers and the staff at the prison - pansies, roses. You name it, we sold it.
MARTIN: And when he wasn't in the greenhouse, he was reading.
JACKSON: I finally read "Catcher In The Rye" just before I left prison. I want to know what the big deal was about that book, so I mean - and honestly I didn't get it, but I read it. I just, you know, I just read stuff like that, you know, because that was my form of coping and my form of escape. You know, books took me everywhere.
MARTIN: Wiley Bridgeman escaped through books, too - especially poetry.
BRIDGEMAN: Like, Robert Frost - I read a lot of his work. I did some Edgar Allan Poe. I like "The Raven." You know, that was really something, you know. I think poetry really talks to the spirit.
MARTIN: Kwame Ajamu said he took every chance to try to learn something in prison - anything.
AJAMU: I also was able to work my way into the vocational culinary.
MARTIN: So that means you know how to cook.
AJAMU: I can really cook. I can barbecue. I can do any kind of food you like, I can do it. Yes, ma'am.
MARTIN: Over the years each man had to maintain a delicate balance - staying hopeful, believing one day they'd be released, but keeping those same expectations in check.
JACKSON: In a prison environment that's the last thing you want to do is get too hopeful about anything because 9 times out of 10, you're going to get more disappointment than positive results. And letdowns are magnified tenfold, you know, in prison.
MARTIN: Then in 2003, Ronnie Bridgeman, now known as Kwame Ajamu, the youngest of the three, was granted parole.
AJAMU: When they called my name, I went up front to the desk where the officers was at and said, hey, man, you know, it's been fun. But you've got to run.
MARTIN: The prison guards gave him some clothes and the belongings he had with him when he was arrested 28 years prior. He came out of the prison gates.
AJAMU: And I just took off. And when I stepped on the other side of that fence, I did my little jig that I promised myself I would do if I ever lived to be released from prison. I did a little jig like you said see Bruce Willis do in "Diehard." (Laughter).
MARTIN: But he never stopped thinking about Ricky Jackson and his brother, Wiley, still locked away. And for the next 10 years, Kwame Ajamu worked to get them released. In 2013, the entire case against the men disintegrated. That young boy who testified against them, Edward Vernon, he recanted his testimony - said he had been a young, scared kid, intimidated and pressured by police. And he made up the whole story. Roughly a year later, Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman were free men. When they got out, one of the first things Ricky Jackson wanted to do was to eat at a nice restaurant.
JACKSON: Red Lobster, as a matter fact - a lot of seafood. I think I ate a little too much, though. So I barfed back in the hotel room.
MARTIN: Oh, no.
JACKSON: It was a good barf. That was a good one, probably one of my best.
MARTIN: And the Bridgeman brothers were finally reunited. A photographer captured the moment. The younger brother is pulling on his older brother's beard. Kwame tells me there's a story behind that gesture that goes back to when they were kids.
AJAMU: I remember my brother said, he said, you know, when I get old, I'm going to have a big white beard like Moses or Santa Claus, you know. And I was, like, oh, you ain't going to have no beard like that. So when that day when that door opened, and my brother came out with that white bearded, it just, like, crushed my heart, you know. And so I touched his beard, and I asked him if he remembered it up close, just he and I. And he said sure.
MARTIN: I asked all three men how they feel about Edward Vernon and the many decades it took him to tell the truth. Ricky Jackson said he locked eyes with Vernon in the courtroom before he was freed.
JACKSON: Basically just nodded to him, and I mouthed the word thank you to him because he was made a victim like we were. They took advantage of a 12-year-old kid, you know.
MARTIN: It's gracious of you. Someone else might approach it differently. I mean, he did have decades as an adult when he could've changed his...
JACKSON: That is true. That's true. You know, but even having said that, I mean, what are we going to do about it now, you know? I mean, being angry with him isn't going to solve anything with - I'm trying to heal myself, you know? And hopefully he can heal his self. And this is a part of my healing right here is to forgive him. So I can move on with my life.
MARTIN: The Bridgeman brothers said the same thing. There's no point in looking back, they tell me. Too much time has been wasted already.
AJAMU: I was mad at Edward Vernon for about a week because we were kids, you know? But that's the whole thing, we were kids. We were children.
MARTIN: Almost 40 years later, they are men on the verge of old age. They are gray. They are tired. But they are free, and they are together.
AJAMU: I never stopped thinking something about my brother and Ricky Jackson, as well. My brother is - we call him Buddy. That's my buddy. My brother is my first best friend, my hero, my everything. And the reason why I held on to the hope that this reality would one day happen - my brother, my buddy.
MARTIN: The state of Ohio has a fund set up to compensate prisoners who served time after being wrongly accused. The attorneys for both Wiley Bridgeman and Ricky Jackson say their clients will submit a claim in hopes of getting some financial help from that fund. But the process could be long and complicated. Wiley Bridgeman's lawyer says in the worst scenario, the entire case would need to be retried.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.