When people try to be heroes

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.


  1. Jonny Vincent says

    I wonder if it might be panicked embellishment? Not with the first example but with the toy gun, maybe he thought the police would come quicker if children’s lives were in danger?

    I’ve seen a lot of this at airports in transit during the holidays, ‘sick’ children being used as a means to secure preferential treatment. Everyone wants to help kids.

    I dunno, that was my first impression, he was panicked and lied to speed things up. Got the deaths of two innocents on his conscience now.

  2. Dunc says

    It’s also important to bear in mind that people are absolutely terrible at actually seeing what’s really in front of them, and even worse at remembering it. People will see what they expect to see, and then retrospectively edit their memories to fill in additional details.

  3. Sean (I am not an imposter) says

    The bigger question is why do people make false accusations? False accusations can be so devastating that the people who devised the 10 Commandments made bearing false witness one of the worst sins you could commit. Why do we allow people to be imprisoned based on nothing more than accusations or witness testimony, even when those accusations come from people with something to gain from them, children, or people considered so dangerous and untrustworthy we lock them in jail such as prison snitches?

    Studies have shown just how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be, even when it is sincere and not fake. Police and prosecutors routinely lie and suppress evidence, intimidate witnesses, and blackmail innocent people into accepting plea bargain deals with threats of even worse punishment.

    Is it really that important that we obtain convictions in every case that we should allow all these abuses? Is the possibility that a guilty man might go free due to a stricter standard of evidence so terrifying that we will readily risk throwing innocent people in jail to avoid it? Contrast the obscene conviction rate of the Federal Court system (97 percent in 2012) with “Blackstone’s formulation” that “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

    Does anyone in their right mind believe our judicial system operates on this principle? Would it really be so destructive if we let 10 guilty men go free for every innocent one we spare from false persecution?

    It seems there is no justice system in the world that isn’t fatally flawed. Could this be because the idea of punishment itself is flawed, and attempts to obtain justice through institutionalized revenge only creates more injustice?

  4. lorn says

    Humans lie. Driven by a desire to support police, or in the case of Ferguson, to back a home town boy, they convince themselves they have seen what they needed to see for their world to remain coherent.

    Physical evidence collected by neutral parties always carries more weight than witnesses.

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