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    Decades Denied: Ohio Men Freed From Jail For a Crime They Didn’t Commit

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    After spending 39 years behind bars, two men walked free Friday after the sole witness whose testimony led to their conviction recanted the statements he made back in 1975.  Researchers say they’re not the only victims of a broken criminal justice system.

    Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman were jailed for nearly four decades for the aggravated murder of a money-order clerk in 1975. On Tuesday, a judge overturned their sentences because the only witness in the case — who was 12 years old at the time — admitted to having made up his testimony. The two, along with Bridgeman’s brother who was released in 2003, were originally sentenced to death; their sentences were commuted when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Ohio’s capital punishment laws unconstitutional in 1978.

    ‘Everything was a lie. They were all lies’

    The sole witness in Jackson and Bridgeman’s trial, Eddy Vernon, is now 51. He came forward to confess that he never saw the attack, as he originally told police. “Everything was a lie. They were all lies,” he told a judge. The prosecution’s case rested entirely on Vernon’s words. “All the information was fed to me,” said Vernon. “I don’t have any knowledge about what happened at the scene of the crime.” He told reporters that he hid those lies for years because police told him if he talked they would jail his parents for perjury. Cleveland police did connect a.38 revolver and a green convertible seen at the crime scene to another man who was arrested three years later for murder during a robbery spree. That man was never charged. 

    ‘The state concedes the obvious’

    After Vernon recanted his 39-year-old testimony, prosecutor for Cuyahoga County Timothy McGinty told a judge that the case against Jackson and Bridgeman had crumbled. “The state concedes the obvious,” he said. That’s when Jackson, still in handcuffs, broke down sobbing, “It’s over,” he shouted. “I’m coming home. I’m coming home. Be here to get me Friday, please. Let everybody know.”

    Thousands of Innocent People Behind Bars

    It’s impossible to accurately know how many people in the U.S. are jailed for crimes they didn’t commit. But a study released in 1996 by Ohio State University, based on a survey of hundreds of judges, prosecuting attorneys, sheriffs and police, estimates that as many as 10,000 people each year in the United States are wrongfully convicted of serious crimes. The study also found the most important factor behind these miscarriages of justice is precisely what happened in Ohio this week: misidentification by eyewitnesses. 

    Lawyers with The Ohio Innocence Project are largely responsible for getting Jackson and Bridgeman exonerated.  The Project, a branch of the University of Cincinnati’s Rosenthal Institute for Justice and staffed by law professors and students, began in 2003 with the mission of identifying inmates who have been wrongfully convicted and working for their release.  Often this entails new trials based on DNA testing, new witnesses or expert testimony or evidence of police wrongdoing. 

    Innocence Projects like the OIP across the country have freed more than 250 wrongfully convicted inmates to date, according to the OIP website.  Jackson is the longest-serving person to be exonerated in the U.S. He and his co-defendants served a total of over 100 years.

    “The job can be agonizing,” said Mark Godsey, one of the OIP’s founding professors, in an interview for UC magazine. “It’s amazing when someone gets released, but for every one of those, there are dozens who didn’t. It’s a very difficult job when you are going against bull-headed people who won’t admit that a mistake has been made. That’s when it gets depressing.”

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