Ohio Death Row Exonerees Reach $18 Million Settlement with City of Cleveland

The city of Cleveland will pay a record $18 million dollars to settle a civil rights lawsuit by three former death-row prisoners who, as a result of police misconduct, spent more than a combined 80 years imprisoned for a murder they did not commit. Kwame Ajamu (pictured, left), his brother Wiley Bridgeman (pictured, center), and Rickey Jackson (pictured, right) were convicted in 1975 of the robbery and murder of Harold Franks based on the coerced false testimony of a 12-year-old boy, Eddie Vernon. Police also fabricated evidence and withheld evidence of the men’s innocence.

The men were tried less than four months after the murder, but their exoneration took nearly four decades. Vernon, the key witness, recanted and testified that police had threatened to jail his parents if he did not cooperate. At the time of the police threats, Vernon’s mother was suffering from cancer. When they were convicted, Ajamu was 17 years old, Jackson was 18, and Bridgeman was 20. No physical evidence linked any of them to the murder.

All three men were sentenced to death, but Jackson’s death sentence was vacated and Ajamu and Bridgeman’s sentences were to reduced when Ohio’s death penalty was declared unconstitutional in 1978. Ajamu and Bridgeman were both paroled prior to their exonerations, but Jackson remained in prison until 2014. At the time of his release, Jackson had spent 39 years, three months and nine days in prison, which was then the longest any American exoneree had been imprisoned.

The settlement is the largest ever awarded in an Ohio police misconduct case. Jackson will receive 40% of the settlement, and Bridgeman and Ajamu will split the rest. When the settlement was reached, Ajamu said, “Money cannot buy freedom and money certainly does not make innocence,” but explained that he and the others had agreed because “we now know that you have no other reason and no other recourse but to tell the world that you wronged three little black boys 45 years ago.”

Terry Gilbert, one of Ajamu’s lawyers, said, “Forty-five years later, we now can say that we have some sense of completion and justice in this case.” Elizabeth Wang, an attorney representing Jackson, said, “What is 39 years of your life worth? Nobody can put a number on that. No amount of money can compensate them for what they went through.” In a statement, law firm Friedman and Gilbert, which represented Bridgeman and Ajamu, said, “This lawsuit and settlement expose the egregious misconduct by police who worked up the case, fabricated false evidence, withheld evidence of innocence, and then coerced Vernon into lying on the stand at trial. The settlement also marks the City of Cleveland’s failure to monitor and train rank and file police in the 1970s, reflected in the department’s widespread culture of racist policing and misconduct with impunity.”

Under Ohio’s compensation system for wrongful convictions, the men had received smaller payments beginning in 2015. The same year, they filed suit against the city of Cleveland and the detectives who had engaged in misconduct on their case. The suit was dismissed by a federal district judge in 2017, but in 2019, a federal appeals court allowed most of the claims to proceed. The case had been scheduled for a civil trial this summer before the settlement was reached.

Cleveland police and prosecutors have a long history of misconduct in murder cases. On May 1, 2020, a Cuyahoga County trial judge granted a new trial to Isiah Andrews in the 1974 murder of his wife after the Ohio Innocence Project discovered exculpatory police reports that had never been turned over to the defense. The reports implicated a man who went on to commit additional acts of violence against women. In March 2020, Melvin Bonnell, who was sentenced to death in 1988, asked the Ohio Supreme Court to vacate his conviction and death sentence after his lawyers discovered physical evidence from his case that Cuyahoga County prosecutors had repeatedly insisted since the mid-1990s had been lost or destroyed. County prosecutors also unconstitutionally withheld exculpatory evidence in the case of Joe D’Ambrosio, who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in 1989. County prosecutors continued to hide that evidence and oppose D’Ambrosio’s release for another two decades.

The Cleveland police department also faces continuing accusations of misconduct. Between November 2014, when the department came under national scrutiny for the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and February 2017, when the Cleveland Plain-Dealer investigated police settlements, the city paid 26 settlements totaling $13.2 million. Most of the settlements stemmed from cases involving police violence against civilians, including a $6 million settlement for the shooting death of Rice and $2.25 million each in the deaths of Tanisha Anderson and Dan Ficker.