“…the American justice system repeatedly fails to fully analyze its own mistakes and abuses. In wrongful convictions, lawsuits and cash settlements have become common, but the system itself has little inclination to push deeper with detailed inquisition into how it could break down so catastrophically.”
“Good Kids, Bad City” is the story of the wrongful conviction, and ultimate exoneration of Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu (formerly Ronnie Bridgeman) and Rickey Jackson. The three were convicted of the murder of Harry J Franks in 1975, solely on the basis of the testimony of then 13 year old Ed Vernon. All three maintained their innocence and were incarcerated for a combined 106 years, part of the time on death row.
But the book is also about the history of Cleveland politics and corruption and racial inequity and injustice.
On May 19, 1975, 58 year old money order salesman Harry J Franks collected $429.55 from a client and traveled to his next client, Cut-Rate, owned by Bob and Anna Robinson. As he exited the Cut-Rate, two young men hit him with a pipe, threw acid in his face, shot him and stole his briefcase. Mrs. Robinson was also shot through the store door.
Ed Vernon, a 13 year old schoolboy, identified the Bridgemans and Jackson as the culprits. They were convicted solely on his testimony, despite conflicting testimony by eyewitness.
Kwame was paroled in 2003. While he was attempting to find help to get Wiley and Ricky out of jail, a well-known Cleveland attorney sent him to a reporter at the Cleveland Scene, Kyle Swenson. Swenson did his own research, concluding that the three men were innocent and in June of 2011, the Cleveland Scene published a story about the case and the innocence of the three men. Nothing happened. “Yet outside of a couple emails, hey great job, keep it up, the response was nil…There was real world heft to this: two men were sitting in prison cells, a third was adrift between a past he was powerless to escape and a present he couldn’t comfortably embrace.”
In the meantime, Rickey was sending jailhouse letters to everybody and anybody who would listen. Ultimately, he got the attention of the Ohio Innocence Project. In 2014, Ed Vernon publicly recanted his 1975 testimony and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor withdrew its case. Wiley and Rickey were freed, after each served roughly 39 years of incarceration.
This summary of the book does not relay the intensity and emotion of the story. The men’s friends and neighbors from 1975 were aware of their innocence but never spoke up. The police manipulated young Ed Vernon and arguably withheld conflicting evidence. The men had bright futures which were literally stolen from them. The horror of their experience is hard to overstate.
The book also tells the history of Cleveland politics and police corruption. It describes the segregation of the city then and now and the city leadership’s inability to improve living conditions in predominantly black communities while downtown Cleveland thrives. And sadly, the book highlights how as much as things change, they stay the same. One day after Rickey Jackson was released from jail, Tamir Rice, a 12 year old black Cleveland boy holding a toy gun, was killed by Cleveland police. The officers involved were not charged.
“The thirty-second soundbite version being promoted here was that a boy lied, innocent men were sent to prison, and now they had been cleared. That view, however, ignored all the critical context of Cleveland racial politics, not to mention the direct role police detectives allegedly played in forcing Ed to falsely testify. Without those pieces, the Jackson-Bridgeman case existed in a vacuum, a one-time piece of tragic luck; but within the framework of Cleveland’s history, the wrongful conviction felt chained to so much more than what a boy saw or didn’t see.”
The story is a real life tragedy. Despite some cringe worthy writing in places, this book is a must read if you want to understand the inequities of our system and the bold efforts of many to right these wrongs. If you want to read this book you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.