“I'm so happy today that this battle has come to an end.”
So spoke Kwame Ajamu after a court exonerated him of murder and drew a line under his 40-year struggle for justice. The judge who finally allowed the 56-year-old to consider himself a free man stepped down from her bench and gave him a hug.
Mr Ajamu, formerly known as Ronnie Bridgeman, was convicted in 1975 along with his brother, Wiley and their friend Ricky Jackson of killing a businessman from Cleveland, Ohio.
The court was told that two people had attacked Harold Franks with acid, and one of the people had shot him. A third person drove a getaway car.
The main prosecution witness was a 12-year-old boy, Eddie Vernon, who claimed to have seen the fatal assault on Mr Franks. Mr Ajamu, his brother and Mr Jackson were convicted and sentenced to death before their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.
Mr Ajuma was released on parole in 2003 having served 27 years. In 2011, an investigation by Scene Magazine suggested the three men had been the victims of a miscarriage of justice and triggered a fresh examination of their cases.
Last month, Eddie Vernon, now aged 52, recanted his testimony, revealing that he had been on a bus at the time of the murder. He said he had been coerced by the police investigating the murder. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m doing the right thing,’ ” Mr Vernon testified last month, according to the Plain Dealer newspaper. “I told the officer, ‘I know who did it.’ ”
Although Mr Ajuma was released on bail seven years ago, Mr Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman remained in jail until last month. On Tuesday they were told by prosecutor Tim McGinty they had all been “the victims of a terrible injustice”.
According to the Associated Press, Mr McGinty absolved all three of their crimes and said he would not oppose any claims of innocence, which will speed the civil process by which the men are compensated for having been wrongfully incarcerated.
During his time out on parole, Mr Ajamu strove to rebuild his life. He is married to a woman he met in 2003 when she was struggling to find the correct bus and he accompanied her to her destination. They married the next year after she proposed to him. Mr Ajamu said his wife, Lashawn Ajamu, was his best friend and greatest supporter.
Mr Ajamu said he hoped one day to meet Mr Vernon and explain that he held no ill will towards him. Mr Ajamu said his full exoneration finally made him feel free to go anywhere he wanted.
“It’s my hope going forward that we don’t have to wait another 40 years for the next Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman, Ricky Jackson,” he said. “It’s my hope from this day on we can stop ignoring what is obvious in the criminal justice system and move forward with peace and love.”Reuse content