Ohio prisoners freed 39 years after wrongful murder convictions

This is from: Deutsche Welle, Nov 21, 2014:

After decades behind bars for a 1975 murder they did not commit, Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman have walked free in Ohio. The key witness, a 12-year-old boy at the time, said police coerced him into false testimony.

Ricky Jackson, 57, and Wiley Bridgeman, 60, walked free on Friday after spending two-thirds of their lives in Ohio prisons for a murder they did not commit. The two men, and Bridgeman’s brother Ronnie, who now goes by the name Kwame Ajamu, were sentenced to death in 1975.

A child, Eddie Vernon, testified that he saw the trio kill businessman Harry Franks on May 19 that year. Vernon recently admitted that he never saw the murder, saying that police detectives had coerced him into giving false testimony in the trial.

“The English language doesn’t even fit what I’m feeling, I’m on an emotional high,” Jackson said on Friday after his release, also saying that he harbored no ill will towards witness Vernon.
“I guess a lot of people will want me to hate that person and carry animosity towards them, but I don’t,” Jackson said. “People see him as a grown man today, but in 1975 he was a 12-year-old kid and he was manipulated and coerced by the police and they used him to get us in prison. As far as that young man is concerned, I wish him the best. I don’t hate him, I just wish he has a good life.”
Once set for death penalty, now pardoned

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a University of Michigan project tracking wrongful convictions, Jackson’s 39 years in prison make him the longest-serving exoneree in US history.

The three-year process leading to the exonerations started with a story published in Scene Magazine in 2011, detailing flaws in the case and questionable elements of star witness Vernon’s testimony. Vernon, now 52, recanted in 2013 when a religious official visited him.

During a court hearing for Jackson on Tuesday, Vernon broke down as he described detectives’ threats before the trial, and the burden of guilt he had shouldered since. By Thursday, prosecutors had filed a motion to dismiss all charges against the three men.

After Scene’s 2011 article, the Ohio branch of Innocence Project, a national organization fighting to exonerate people convicted wrongfully, took up Jackson and Bridgeman’s cause.

ll three men were initially handed the death sentence, but their sentences were later commuted to life in prison. According to Mark Godsey from the Ohio Innocence Project, “one of them came within 20 days of execution before Ohio ruled the death penalty unconstitutional.”

Ronnie Bridgeman, now Kwame Ajamu, was released in 2003; he attended both men’s exoneration hearings on Friday.

INNOCENCE: Ohio’s "Substantial Inequitable Conduct" Leads to Nation’s 140th Death Row Exoneration

From: Death Penalty Information Center:

On January 23, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the state of Ohio challenging the unconditional writ of habeas corpus and bar to the re-prosecution of Joe D’Ambrosio (pictured), thus ending the capital case. He has now been freed from death row with all charges dismissed. A federal District Court had first overturned D’Ambrosio’s conviction in 2006 because the state had withheld key evidence from the defense. The federal court originally allowed the state to re-prosecute him, but just before trial the state revealed the existence of even more important evidence and requested further delay. Also the state did not divulge in a timely manner that the key witness against D’Ambrosio had died.

In 2010, the District Court barred D’Ambrosio’s re-prosecution because of the prosecutors’ misconduct. The court concluded that these developments biased D’Ambrosio’s chances for a fair trial, and hence the state was barred from retrying him. District Court Judge Kathleen O’Malley wrote:

“For 20 years, the State held D’Ambrosio on death row, despite wrongfully withholding evidence that ‘would have substantially increased a reasonable juror’s doubt of D’Ambrosio’s guilt.’ Despite being ordered to do so by this Court … the State still failed to turn over all relevant and material evidence relating to the crime of which D’Ambrosio was convicted. Then, once it was ordered to provide D’Ambrosio a constitutional trial or release him within 180 days, the State did neither. During those 180 days, the State engaged in substantial inequitable conduct, wrongfully retaining and delaying the production of yet more potentially exculpatory evidence… To fail to bar retrial in such extraordinary circumstances surely would fail to serve the interests of justice.”

In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the bar to re-prosecution. (D’Ambrosio v. Bagley, No. 10-3247, Aug. 29, 2011). Even the dissent referred to the state’s “remarkable inability to competently prosecute D’Ambrosio.” The state appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court mainly on jurisdictional grounds, but was denied certiorari on Jan. 23. (Bagley v. D’Ambrosio, No. 11-672, denying cert.).

D’Ambrosio is 140th former death row inmate to be exonerated since 1973 and the 6th from Ohio. He was first indicted for the offense in 1988.

(See D’Ambrosio v. Bagley, 6th Cir., No. 10-3247, August 29, 2011; see also DPIC’s prior post; current post Jan. 23, 2012). See also Innocence and Arbitrariness.

Abolition bill announced

Via Facebook
From: Ohioans to Stop Executions

Columbus, OH –March 14, 2011

State Representatives Ted Celeste and Nickie Antonio announced legislation that would abolish the death penalty.

OTSE Executive Director, Kevin Werner said, “This is a day of enormous opportunity. Today begins a thoughtful discussion around how to build a fairer, more equitable, and more efficient justice system.” Werner, who spoke at the press conference announcing the bill, also said, “Eliminating the death penalty would allow us to better serve victims’ family members, will guarantee that we will never execute an innocent person, and will free up precious resources to better support law enforcement officials in their efforts to keep our communities safe.””

Ohio death row exonerees Dale Johnston and Derrick Jamison were also on hand and spoke at the press conference. Johnston was sentenced to death for the 1982 murders of his daugher and her fiance. Dale spent 7 years in prison for crimes he did not commit. He was freed from prison in 1990. Decades after the crime, the man responsible for the murders confessed and is serving a life sentence.

Derrick Jamison walked out of the Hamilton County Justice Center exactly 20 years after he was sentenced to death in 1985. Investigators withheld evidence, including eyewitness statements, from Jamison and his attorneys. The evidence indicated someone else committed the crime for which Derrick was convicted. The murder has never been solved.

At the press conference Derrick said, “I am proud to have spoken around the country and overseas about the death penalty, but really I need for my home state of Ohio, which condemned me to death, to hear me.”

Melinda Dawson, whose mother Judy Johnson, was murdered in 1998, also spoke to the media. Melinda’s then-husband, Clarence Elkins, was convicted of the murder. The following eight years of her life, Melinda spent working to prove Clarence’s innocence and find the real killer. Clarence was exonerated in 2005 as a result of Melinda’s work and due to the support of the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati’s Rosenthal Institute of Justice.

OTSE Board member Jim Tobin also spoke on behalf of the Ohio Catholic Confernece. The Ohio bishops renewed their call for abolition following a series of high profile individuals advocating for an end to the death penalty including Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfiefer and retired Ohio prisons director Terry Collins.