Kwame Ajamu was a teenager in Cleveland, Ohio, when he was sentenced to death in 1975 for the murder-robbery of a money order salesman named Harold Franks.
The sole evidence against Kwame, known as Ronnie Bridgeman at the time, and his co-defendants, brother Wiley Bridgeman and friend Ricky Jackson, was the false, coerced eyewitness testimony of a 13-year-old boy named Eddie Vernon. No physical or forensic evidence linked any of them to the crime, none of them had any prior criminal record, and defense witnesses provided all three with credible alibis. Nevertheless, all three were sentenced to death just months after their arrest.
In January 2003, Kwame was released from prison on parole, still carrying the stigma of being arrested for a heinous crime he did not commit.
In 2011, Cleveland Scene magazine published a detailed examination of the case and highlighted the numerous inconsistencies in young Eddie Vernon’s testimony, along with the absence of any other evidence linking Jackson and the Bridgemans to the crime. The reporter, Kyle Swenson, reached out to the pastor of Vernon in an attempt to talk to him. The pastor later said in a sworn affidavit that “Edward Vernon told me that he lied to the police when he said he had witnessed the murder in 1975, and he had put three innocent men in prison for murder. He told me that he tried to back out of the lie at the time of the line-up, but he was only a child and the police told him it was too late to change his story.” At the urging of his pastor, Vernon publicly recanted his story, setting in motion the exonerations of Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman, and Ricky Jackson.
Prompted by the recantation, attorneys with the Ohio Innocence Project filed a petition for a new trial on behalf of Jackson. Similar petitions were later filed on behalf of Bridgeman and Ajamu. The Ohio Innocence Project’s re-investigation of the case uncovered evidence that when Vernon attempted to recant his identification of the three defendants, police intimidated him to testify falsely. The police had never disclosed to the defense attorneys for the three defendants that Vernon attempted to recant his accusation prior to the trials.
In November 2014, Judge Richard McMonagle granted motions for a new trial filed by Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman and vacated their convictions. The prosecution then dismissed the charges against both of them and they were released
On December 9, 2014, Kwame Ajamu’s conviction was vacated and the prosecution dismissed the charges against him. Kwame served 28 years in prison and was exonerated after 39 years.
When incarcerated, Kwame was confined to a cell just wide enough to stretch his arms, and the prospect of execution loomed over him. He hopes that no one has to endure what he has endured; since exoneration, he has become solely focused on abolishing the death penalty all over the world and fighting for criminal justice reform. Kwame now lives in Ohio with his wife and serves as Chairman of the Board of Witness to Innocence. He travels across the United States speaking against the death penalty.