CLEVELAND — Two men imprisoned for nearly four decades walked free on Friday, having been exonerated in a 1975 murder because the key witness against them — a then-13-year-old boy — recanted his testimony.
A Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge dismissed the cases against Ricky Jackson, 57, and Wiley Bridgeman, 60.
The witness recanted last year and said Cleveland police detectives coerced him into testifying that the men — along with Ronnie Bridgeman, brother of Wiley — killed businessman Harry Franks on May 19, 1975.
Cuyahoga County prosecutors on Thursday filed the motion to dismiss all charges against the three men, who initially were sentenced to death.
Ronnie Bridgeman, 57, who is now known as Kwame Ajamu, was released from prison in January 2003. He attended the other two men’s hearings Friday.
When he dismissed Jackson’s case, Judge Richard McMonagle said: “Life is filled with small victories, and this is a big one.”
“The English language doesn’t even fit what I’m feeling,” Jackson said as he exited the building Friday.
“I’m on an emotional high. You sit in prison for so long and think about this day, but when it actually comes, you don’t know what you’re going to do — you just want to do something.”
Bridgeman, 60, said he never lost hope that he would be freed for good.
“You keep struggling, you keep trying,” he said.
Bridgeman embraced his brother Ajamu as he walked out of the courthouse. He seemed overwhelmed by the whirlwind of the past few days, saying he isn’t sure what the future holds, outside of a celebratory fish dinner.
“Stick with me. You’ll be all right,” Ajamu said. “I ain’t never going to let you go.”
Jackson and his lawyers planned to celebrate Friday at a hotel. Asked where he was going to live, Jackson replied: “It’s ironic. For 39 years, I’ve had a place to stay. Now, you know, that’s precarious.”
Ajamu said in an interview Thursday that the prospect of the three being together again is “mind-boggling.” Ajamu spent his 18th birthday on death row and was in prison when his mother, a brother and a sister died.