Two Ohio men wrongly accused of murder experienced freedom for the first time in nearly four decades on Friday morning, but said they don’t harbor bitterness over their unjust imprisonment.
A Cleveland judge on Wednesday had dropped all charges against Ricky Jackson, 57, and Wiley Bridgeman, 60, allowing for the pair’s release.
Jackson was 19 when he was convicted along with Bridgeman and Bridgeman’s brother, Ronnie, in the 1975 shooting death and robbery of Harold Franks, a Cleveland-area money order salesman.
Testimony from a 12-year-old witness helped point to Jackson as the triggerman and led a jury to convict all three. Ronnie Bridgeman, now known as Kwame Ajamu, was paroled from prison in 2003.
The witness, Edward Vernon, now 53, recanted his testimony last year, saying he was coerced by detectives, according to Cuyahoga County court documents. Vernon wrote in a 2013 affidavit that he never saw the murder take place, but he was told by detectives that if he didn’t testify against Jackson, his parents would be arrested.
Vernon said he confided in a pastor several years after meeting with Bridgeman, and the pastor encouraged him to reach out to the Innocence Project. Vernon wrote that he had “been waiting to tell the truth about this for a long time.”
“A lot of people think I should be mad,” said Jackson, but “in ’75, he was a 12-year-old-kid.” Jackson said “it took a lot of courage” for the witness to recant his statement.
The Ohio Innocence Project, which took up the case, said Jackson had been the longest-held U.S. prisoner to be exonerated.
Jackson was originally sentenced to death, but that sentence was vacated because of a paperwork error. The Bridgeman brothers remained on death row until Ohio declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1978.
“One of them came within 20 days of execution before Ohio ruled the death penalty unconstitutional” said Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project.
“The bitterness is over with,” said Wylie Bridgeman during his first moments of freedom on Friday.
Jackson agreed. “I had plans for my life,” but “time is just something that you can't get back so I'm not going to really cry about it,” he said.
A story published in Scene Magazine in 2011 first raised new questions about the murder and whether Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers actually committed the crime.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said in court Tuesday that without an eyewitness there was not much of a case. “The state is conceding the obvious," he said, according to Reuters.
NBC News' Emmanuelle Saliba contributed to this report. Reuters also contributed.