In 1975, in Cleveland, Ohio, Harold Franks, a money-order salesman, was murdered in a robbery. Ronny Bridgeman, Wiley Bridgeman and Ricky Jackson were all arrested, charged with capital murder, tried and convicted based on the eyewitness testimony of a 12-year-old named Eddie Vernon.
All three men were sentenced to die in Ohio's electric chair. Mr. Jackson received a reprieve due a paperwork error while the Bridgeman brothers were still on death row when Ohio declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1978.
For almost four decades, Mr. Jackson proclaimed his innocence. And, for almost four decades, few listened and even fewer cared.
In 2011, Mr. Vernon recanted his testimony to his pastor. He said his testimony was coerced by the police who threatened to arrest his parents if he didn't testify the way the police told him. He told the pastor he was on a school bus at that time of the robbery.
Lawyers with the Ohio Innocence Project filed a motion for new trial in March of this year.
As a result of Mr. Vernon's recantation, and the prosecutor's admission that without an eyewitness the case against Mr. Jackson cannot be prosecuted, Cuyahoga County Judge Richard McMonagle, dismissed the charges against Mr. Jackson and ordered him freed from prison.
While Mr. Jackson is no doubt thankful that his 39 year ordeal is over, this exoneration leaves us with more troubling questions.
Once again we have a man sent to prison for decades because a jury thought the government had proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt - when they were wrong. The conviction was based upon the eyewitness testimony of a child. There was no physical evidence connecting any of the men to the murder. Nothing but the word of a child who was coerced by the police.
This is what happens when we allow the government to lower its burden of proof. If you've ever picked a jury in a criminal case you've heard the prosecutor tell the panel what he or she thinks beyond a reasonable doubt isn't. If you're in Harris County you've probably seen the prosecutor put on the PowerPoint display with the puzzle of the gun with a few missing pieces. If you've ever tried a criminal case you've heard the prosecutor tell the jury to "add it up" (or something similar) when discussing the evidence (or lack thereof).
Every new exoneration points out the deficits in our criminal (in)justice system. Every new exoneration points to the fallacy of the infallibility of eyewitness testimony. And every new exoneration points out how low the state's burden of proof in criminal cases has been allowed to fall.
Mr. Jackson's case isn't the triumph of our system of (in)justice. It's an indictment of it. It should give us all pause whenever we step into the courtroom. It should give us all pause when we sit down to decide whether the state has met its burden of proof.
Ricky Jackson lost 39 years of his life for a crime he didn't commit. That's 39 years that can never be replaced. There is no amount of compensation that can make up for the time that was stolen from him. Meanwhile, those who conspired to convict him walk free.
Some system, huh?