A federal judge wrongly dismissed lawsuits filed by three men who spent decades in prison for a murder in Cleveland they did not commit, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday.
The judges in Cincinnati concluded that 62-year-old Rickey Jackson, 61-year-old Kwame Ajamu and 64-year-old Wiley Bridgeman can pursue civil rights claims that Cleveland police detectives fabricated evidence, engaged in malicious prosecution and withheld exculpatory evidence at their trials in 1975.
“We couldn’t have had a better outcome,” said attorney Terry Gilbert, who represents Ajamu and Bridgeman, who are brothers. “It is a tremendous victory for justice for three men whose lives were destroyed by the Cleveland Police Department. They now have a chance of holding them accountable.”
Jackson’s attorney, Elizabeth Wang, said: “Rickey Jackson just wants his day in court. He’s going to get it now.”
City spokesman Dan Williams said Cleveland is disappointed with the appellate court’s decision and is evaluating its options.
Along with Cleveland, a long-retired detective and three detectives who are dead are named as defendants in the lawsuits filed in 2015. A message was left Friday with the attorney who represents both the estates of the dead detectives and the guardian ad litem for the detective who is still alive.
Bridgeman and Jackson were released from prison in November 2014. Ajamu was paroled in 2003. Jackson spent 39 years in prison, Bridgeman 37 years and Ajamu 25 years. The Ohio Court of Claims in 2016 awarded the men millions of dollars for wrongful imprisonment.
All three men received death sentences that were later commuted to life terms.
The Ohio Innocence Project and other attorneys helped persuade county judges in Cleveland to exonerate the men after obtaining an affidavit from a man named Eddie Vernon in 2013. Vernon in the affidavit recanted his trial testimony identifying the three men as the killers of a salesman outside a convenience store. Vernon, who was 13 in 1975, said detectives coerced him into testifying and threatened to put his parents in jail if he did not.
The claims against Cleveland involve not only “an egregious case of police conduct” by the detectives, Wang said, but also the city’s training and policies in the 1970s that allowed officers to withhold evidence that could prove a defendant’s innocence.