Wrongful Conviction Forum

Our second event for Wednesday, February 20th, was a City Club forum in which Mr. Raymond Strickland, reporter for WKYC-TV, interviewed Mr. Kyle Swenson, Washington Post Reporter and author of the book, Good Kids, Bad City: A Story of Race and Wrongful Conviction in AmericaWhen Mr. Swenson worked as a reporter for the Cleveland Scene back in 2011, he was connected with Mr. Kwame Ajamu (formerly Ronnie Bridgeman), who contended that he and two other black men, his brother Mr. Wiley Bridgeman, and Mr. Rickey Jackson, were wrongfully convicted in 1975 and sentenced to prison for a robbery and brutal murder of a white man outside of convenience store in Cleveland. The main testimony against was shaky at best and provided by Edward Vernon, then only 13 years old.

By 2011, Mr. Ajamu had been released on parole and was working to clear his name and free Mr. Bridgeman and Mr. Jackson, who remained in prison. Through a contact, he met Mr. Swenson. Mr. Swenson investigated the matter and became convinced that Mr. Ajamu was indeed telling the truth. Accordingly, he wrote a story for the Cleveland Scene exposing the defects in the prosecution’s case. Because of this article, the Ohio Innocence Project became involved in the matter. Subsequently, in 2014, Mr. Vernon officially recanted his testimony, which he claims was coerced. Mr. Bridgeman and Mr. Jackson’s convictions were overturned and they were released from prison.

All told, the three men served a total of 106 years in custody.  As the City Club notes stated, “upon his release Mr. Jackson served more time behind bars-39 years-than anyone who has ever been released from prison on a wrongful conviction, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Mr. Swenson’s book not only talks about this particular case but also about Cleveland’s history in terms of racial conflict. Along these lines, Mr. Swenson admitted that after first talking to Mr. Ajamu he was pretty sure that he was telling the truth but was still hesitant because he couldn’t imagine our justice system messing up so much that these men would have been detained for so long if they were not guilty. Later, as he progressed in his investigation, Mr. Swenson realized that his doubts came from the perspective of a young while male who enjoyed a solid, middle-class upbringing and had never had a serious encounter with our criminal justice system. He thus came to the unfortunate conclusion that such a mistake was indeed possible.

For a more extensive history of tempestuous strife in Cleveland, Mr. Swenson suggested that we check out a book that really impacted him titled, A Ghetto Takes Shape by Dr. Kenneth Kusmer, who is an assistant professor of history at Temple University in Philadelphia. Our readers might also want to check out an interview that Mr. Swenson recently gave to the Columbus Dispatch in which he discusses these issues further.

Many of Mr. Swenson’s family members were there with us and, upon learning our association with Margaret W. Wong & Associates, LLC, we were told that Mr. Swenson graduated from U.S. High School along with Ms. Wong’s son, Mr. Steven Chan. We, ourselves, were recognized by Mr. Swenson’s younger brother, Evan, because we often enjoy coffee at the Root Cafe in Lakewood where he diligently works.

Mr. Kwame Ajamu, himself was at the City Club that day. It was inspiring to hear that, while in prison, he, as well as Mr. Bridgeman and Mr. Jackson, took a hard look at their lives and devoted themselves to working constructively on various projects while incarcerated.  From what we understand, at this time, all three men are moving forward with their lives in a positive fashion. What’s more, they overcame whatever resentment they may have had for Mr. Edward Vernon (who has suffered extensively from chemical dependency issues) a long time ago because they realized that such hatred could only warp them.

This whole story would seem like it could be another episode of the popular podcast Serial, where reporters discuss crimes with dubious evidence like this one. We recently went to an event about it and we highly encourage our readers to check it out.