StoryCorps 521: Rickey and Eddie
Michael Garofalo (MG): Rickey Jackson spent nearly four decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit… and his ordeal started with a lie told by a child…
Rickey Jackson (RJ): I went through 39 years of incarceration because of some things that you put in motion.
Eddie Vernon (EV): Right…
MG: Today Rickey is free… and that child — Eddie Vernon — is now a man…
EV: As I grew up, I was depressed, suicidal. It ate me up so much inside, man.
MG: Both men lived their lives knowing the truth. And in this episode of the StoryCorps podcast from NPR, they sit down for a conversation.
I’m Michael Garofalo, and we’ll be right back after this short break. Stay with us.
MG: Welcome back. The story in this episode starts in Cleveland in 1975, when a man was murdered during a robbery outside a neighborhood grocery store.
The main witness in the case was 12-year-old Eddie Vernon who in fact, hadn’t seen anything… and says he was pressured into testifying by police.
His testimony led to the convictions of three innocent people – one of them was a teenager named Rickey Jackson.
Jackson served nearly 4 decades for a crime he didn’t commit. Until 2014… when Eddie Vernon — at the age of 52 — came forward with the truth.
After his release, Rickey reached out to Eddie… and they recently sat down for StoryCorps. It was the first time they’ve sat down for a one on one conversation about what happened.
RJ: I went through 39 years of incarceration because of some things that you put in motion.
RJ: Throughout the years did you ever think about me?
EV: Yeah… I wanted to trade places because I said, It should be me instead of them. And as I grew up, I was depressed, suicidal. It ate me up so much inside, man.
RJ: I used to think about you a lot; hatred, loathing… I even used to fantasize about ways that I was going to kill you. We didn’t have any physical evidence to bring back into court.
RJ: It was just you.
EV: When I came forth I was tired. I couldn’t live no more like that, Rickey. I know that so much was taken away from you all, so many years. You all deserved your freedom.
RJ: In court, I hadn’t seen you…
EV: Since the trial…
RJ: So when you walked in that courtroom, I almost didn’t recognize you. And, when they were cross examining you, I saw the little 12-year-old kid in you…
RJ: …but I also saw the strength of a man who had come there to do something and the next thing I know, I’m a free man.
It was a very courageous thing that you’ve done and, in order for me to move forward, I wanted to put everything to rest. So I talked to my lawyer and asked him if there was any chance that you and I could hook up. And when I saw you, all that stuff that I used to think about you — the animosity — I could hardly remember.
And it might have been my imagination but when we embraced, it felt like you just got lighter in my arms.
EV: Yeah… It took a whole lot off of my shoulders, the weight I’d been carrying for all these years.
RJ: I don’t know if I ever told you this but you did your part when it counted most. You know that? You hear me talking to you, man?
RJ: You did your part when it counted most.
EV: Okay… Thank you.
RJ: People still find it hard to understand that I forgive you and I think people confuse that with forgetting; I’m not going to ever forget.
RJ: But if forgiveness is my way out, I’ll gladly take it.
EV: And I thank God for that, man. I really do, Rickey.
RJ: Ain’t nothing phony about it; ain’t nothing corny. You know, after all that we’ve been through, to finally be sitting here face to face talking about what happened; I’m saying, one man to another, I wish you nothing but the best always.
MG: That’s Rickey Jackson with Eddie Vernon in Cleveland, Ohio. This story was produced by Jud Esty-Kendall, who is joining me now. Hi, Jud.
Jud Esty-Kendall (JEK): Hi Michael…
MG: So, I want to dive deeper into Rickey and Eddie’s story… but before we do… there were two other innocent people convicted here… do you know what happened to them?
JEK: Yeah… Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman are brothers who were close friends of Rickey’s growing up. They both spent time in prison too even though they were innocent. Eddie’s testimony led to their convictions being cleared as well.
MG: Yeah so what exactly happened with Rickey’s conviction?
JEK: Well, in 2014, when Eddie testified, Rickey was completely exonerated — prosecutors dropped all charges.
MG: And at that point, when Rickey got out…he had spent more time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit than anyone else in the US…
JEK: Yeah, at least that we know of. Then, in 2015, Rickey received around 2 million dollars from the state of Ohio. And he used the money to start a real estate business.
MG: Let’s go back to 1975. What can you tell us about the murder? Which… still has never been solved, right?
JEK: Right… still unsolved. The man who was killed was Harold Franks. He sold money orders at a grocery store in Rickey and Eddie’s neighborhood. One afternoon, he was leaving the store with $425 cash when he was attacked. The people who did this threw battery acid in his face and beat him with a pipe before shooting him twice. They also shot the owner of the grocery store, who survived.
MG: So where was Eddie that day and how did he come to connect 3 innocent people to the murder?
JEK: Eddie talked about that in the interview… He was a 7th grader at the time…
EV: We were on the school bus. We heard pow pow. After we get off, we started running up and saw the man’s body laying there on the ground. I’d never seen nobody dead before.
This kid, he’s like, “Man, I know who did it. So I said, Well I’ll do the right thing and tell. You know what I mean?
MG: So he was basically repeating a rumor that another kid started?
JEK: And he really thought he was doing the right thing.
MG: Did Ricky and Eddie know each other?
JEK: Yeah they did. I was really surprised when we recorded this interview, the warmth between them. In fact… listen to how they started their interview…
RJ: My name is Rickey Jackson. My relationship to the interviewee is a friend.
EV: My name is Edward Vernon. My relationship is, um, I’m here with my friend.
JEK: There are so many connections. Eddie was the paperboy for Rickey’s family, he was good friends with Rickey’s younger brother, and Rickey dated Eddie’s cousin. It felt like they were reliving a part of their lives they hadn’t ever been able to talk about before.
MG: So as I mentioned at the top of the podcast… Eddie testified that, as a kid, he had been coerced by the police.
JEK: Yeah, so here’s what Eddie says happened. Police questioned him multiple times without his parents or a lawyer. When they brought him in to ID Rickey and the others in a lineup, Eddie told the police that he had lied… that he hadn’t seen anything. The detective in charge was furious. He yelled at Eddie and threatened to put his parents in jail if he didn’t stick to his story. Remember, he’s 12, so this terrified him. And he stuck with the lie.
MG: And it was clear from our fact checking that this wasn’t an isolated incident. These tactics were common in the Cleveland police department during the 70s.
The whole thing was just a huge miscarriage of justice. And you know, just about everyone who could be held accountable is now dead.
MG: What was Rickey’s life like at the time?
JEK: Well he was just 18 years old. He was training for the Marines and used to do long runs around the neighborhood to get in shape. And Eddie remembers how he and all the younger kids would run behind Rickey and try to keep up.
Then one day he’s accused of murder and is looking at spending the rest of his life in prison…
MG: What’s so astounding to me — is how Rickey doesn’t seem bitter at all…
JEK: Yeah he talked about that.
RJ: After decades and decades of trying, fighting, screaming and yelling for somebody to listen, you get to that point where, man, I’ve been to prison 35 years, I ain’t never getting out.
RJ: Your toes are hanging over the edge of the abyss and you’re teetering there, I don’t wanna fall but I wouldn’t be mad if I did because I can’t do this anymore. I spent so much of my life feeling like that; I don’t want to do that no more. So given this great opportunity to finally move forward with my life, I wanted to put everything to rest, everything, you know.
MG: Eddie also decided it was time to put everything to rest. Why did he come forward after so long?
JEK: One of the big factors was his relationship with his pastor. Eddie actually told him that he’d lied and had been carrying this his whole life. And the pastor encouraged Eddie to come forward with the truth.
MG: It’s worth noting how incredibly rare it is for someone to do what Eddie did… and admit his testimony was false. One of Rickey’s lawyers put it this way, he said that “ 99 times out of 100, a person in that situation is going to take it to their grave.” They just can’t face the consequences.
JEK: As Rickey said, this was a tremendous act of courage on Eddie’s part.
MG: Do you know if they’ve been in touch after the interview?
JEK: Yeah they’ve talked since. We recorded their interview in November and, right before Christmas, Eddie was feeling down because he was alone for the holiday. Rickey told me that he wanted to invite Eddie over but was out of town with his family.
You know, Rickey is doing really well. But even now, when I speak with him, he’s still concerned about Eddie. He told me that even though he knows Eddie has accepted his forgiveness, Eddie still struggles to forgive himself.
MG: Jud, thanks.