On May 19, 1975, Harry Franks, a tall man with a long chin, was murdered outside a corner store on Cleveland’s East Side. Two men took part in his death. One splashed battery acid in his left eye and tried to rip the bag from his hands. The other drew a gun and shot him twice in the chest. After the men fled, people gathered around the body. In that crowd was Eddie Vernon, a 12-year-old boy who altered the course of three men’s lives when he stepped forward and said that he had seen the murder and he knew who had done it.
That lie led to the arrest of Ricky Jackson, Wiley Bridgeman, and Ronnie Bridgeman, three neighborhood teens. The three were charged, tried, and ultimately convicted of murdering Franks. They were originally sentenced to death. It would take more than three decades for Eddie Vernon to finally step forward and right a past wrong, recanting his testimony and exonerating three men. Wiley and Ronnie had been released on parole, but Ricky, the alleged shooter, had spent 39 continuous years behind bars–the longest sentence of an exonerated person on record in America–before he finally walked free last November. Remarkably, shortly after he was released, he met Eddie and forgave him for what he had done.
I went to Cleveland to meet Ricky in February, and I spent a good deal of the last month working on a cover story about him for the Christian Science Monitor’s magazine. This was a gratifying story to write. In his life, Ricky has endured more than most. And he has a lot to teach the world about forgiveness, perseverance, and overcoming injustice.