Emotional moment: Cleveland man exonerated 40 years later for crime he did not commit

This is the moment a Cleveland man was exonerated of a murder he didn’t commit – 40 years after the killing took place.

Kwame Ajamu was just 17 years old when he was sentenced to death in 1975 after businessman Harry Franks was beaten and shot dead outside a convenience store in his neighborhood.

Then going under the name Ronnie Bridgeman, he was jailed alongside his brother Wiley Bridgeman, then aged 20, and their friend Ricky Jackson, 19.

But the case against them unraveled after the prosecution’s star witness, a 13-year-old, recounted his testimony last year, saying he lied after being pressured and fed evidence by detectives.

Mr Jackson and Mr Bridgeman, now aged 59 and 60, were released from jail last month after the charges against them were dropped.

Mr Jackson had served 39 years, the longest ever for a man who was subsequently exonerated.

Mr Ajamu had been released on parole in 2003 after 27 years, and his exoneration yesterday brings to a close a case which the county prosecutor branded ‘a terrible injustice.’

In emotional scenes inside the Cleveland courtroom, Mr Ajamu broke down in tears and pumped his fists before Judge Pamela Barker stepped down from the bench to give him a hug.

Comforted by his attorney Terry Gilbert, Mr Ajamu told the court that ‘this room is lit with the truth.’

The tragic case began in spring 1975 outside a Cut-Rate store in Fairmount. Harry Franks, a money-order collector, had just come out of the shop when he was attacked.

The assailants threw acid in his face, robbed him, beat him, and then used a gun to execute him. A green car screeched up to the curb before the attackers jumped in and were driven away.

Officers began their investigations and arrested several suspects, but none of them were correctly picked out during identity parades.

Officers then put out appeals for information and Eddie Vernon, who was aged just 12 at the time, stepped forward saying he had witnessed the crime and knew who the perpetrators were.

He later told Scene magazine: ‘I don’t exactly know why I went up to the police at first. I think I just wanted to be helpful.

‘You have to understand I was 12 years old at the time. I thought I was doing the right thing.’

In fact, Vernon had not witnessed the crime, but had been heading home on a school bus in another part of the neighbourhood when he and his friends heard gunshots.

They raced to the scene in time to see Mr Franks dying on the pavement, but saw nothing more than that.

When the case came to court, however, Vernon was able to testify to having seen the Bridgeman brothers and Mr Jackson at the scene of the crime.

He gave details of the weapon used, the method of execution and the getaway vehicle – but these had all been fed to him by detectives, along with threats to arrest his parents for perjury if he tried to back away from the story, he said later.

He testified three times at the separate trials – each testimony riddled with inconsistencies that failed to stack up with the others.

But it was enough to convince three separate juries that the men were guilty, and they were sentenced to the death penalty, which was later lowered to life in prison.

It was not until April 2013, following a series of arrests for drug offences and a bout of poor health which landed him in hospital, that Mr Vernon tearfully confessed to his pastor that his evidence had been a lie.

He later gave a written statement to officials from the Ohio Innocence Project who passed it to the courts, leading to the three men having their names cleared.

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