Last Friday, Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman were released from prison after serving 39 years for a crime they did not commit, convicted purely on the testimony of a then 12-year old boy Eddie Vernon who now admits that he did not see them commit the crime. There was no physical evidence connecting the men to the crime. The boy says that after he initially told police that he had witnessed the crime, they later coached him on what to say at trial. A third person Ronnie Bridgman, Wiley’s brother, was released in 2003 after serving 27 years.
As horrendously tragic a miscarriage of justice as this was, it could have been even worse. The two of them had been condemned to death and spent time on death row, showing once again that while the death penalty is an abomination for many reasons, the potential for killing innocent people before their innocence has been established is a major one. In this case, the Ohio Innocence Project helped to reverse this monstrous miscarriage of justice. What makes it even worse is that by pinning the crime falsely on these three men, police effectively let the actual murderers get away with their crime and they still roam free.
What interested me is why a 12-year old boy gave false testimony in the first place.
In 1975, authorities built their case against Jackson and the Bridgemans on Vernon, who said this week he simply wanted to help police. He said a friend gave him the three men’s names, and Vernon told police he saw the slaying. In fact, he said, he wasn’t close, as the school bus he rode was not near the crime scene, the Fairmont Cut-Rite on Fairhill Road, which is now Stokes Boulevard.
There was no evidence linking the three men to the crime. Vernon said that once he told authorities the names of the three and the fact that he saw the slaying, Cleveland police fed him information about the crime and what happened.
The key is that Vernon ‘simply wanted to help police’. It is likely that he wanted to be thought a hero by being the person who solved a major crime. And once he went down that road, there was no end. With the police eager to wrap up the case quickly, both had every incentive to create a false narrative that suited their own purposes. And three innocent men had their lives ruined as a result.
I suspect that many people do things like this for similar reasons, to try to be a hero. Take for example the case back in September where police got a call from Ronald Ritchie in a Walmart store who said that a man was brandishing a gun at a woman and her children in one of the aisles. Police stormed the store and shot John Crawford dead. The store security video later showed that the victim had picked up an air gun that was for sale from the shelves and was simply holding it while talking on his cell phone and not threatening anyone. When the store video was synced with the 911 call from Richie saying of the man with the gun “he just pointed it at, like, two children” and that it looked like the man was trying to load it, the video shows nothing of the sort. You can see the video here.
The Guardian has a detailed sequence of the events. Another security video does not corroborate the testimony of the police who shot Crawford and who alleged that he had given repeated commands to him to drop the weapon.
In addition to the totally unnecessary death of Crawford, in the ensuing pandemonium, the mother of the two children died of a heart attack.
So why did Richie lie about what he was seeing, creating two innocent victims where there should have been none? Again I suspect that he wanted to be a hero. He saw a young black man with a gun, jumped to a false conclusion and decided that he would be the person who thwarts a crime by acting quickly and calling police. Once you start down that road, reality and fantasy become intermingled and, as with Eddie Vernon, innocent people get hurt.
The problem with these hero fantasies is that people are armed to the teeth in the US and thus the temptation to play the hero becomes stronger. What is the fun in walking around carrying gun your whole life if you never get to use it? In the above two cases, we had tragic outcomes because of people who were merely witnesses to events. It is inevitable that we will have times when people decide that they cannot wait for the police and they will decide to take the law into their own hands and be an even bigger hero.