Ohio Innocence Project

Death row exonerees share their stories

Across the US wrongfully convicted inmates sit in prisons on death row. Failures in the justice system allow this sad reality to persist. But there is growing support and advocacy for these wrongfully convicted people. 

This fall, Witness to Innocence and the Ohio Innocence Project teamed up, traveling across Ohio to share the stories of innocent people who’ve spent many years on death row. On October 12th, Kwame Amaju and Derrick Jamison were two of the speakers at the Phillips Temple CME Church on Palmwood Avenue in Toledo. “These atrocities will continue to happen until we broaden the mentalities in our communities and attack the system the way that it needs to be attacked,” explains Amaju, board chairman of Witness to Innocence. 

Decades Lost

Amaju’s story goes back to 1975 in Cleveland, when he was just 17 years old. “I was tried, sentenced, and convicted to death before my 18th birthday,” he explains. Amaju, his brother Wiley Bridgeman, and their friend Ricky Jackson were accused of committing a robbery and the murder of Harry J. Franks, outside a local grocery store. 

The statement from 12-year-old Eddie Vernon was all it took for the three of them to receive a death sentence. Later, Vernon changed his story from his original statement and said he was coerced by police to testify against the three innocent young men. 

No Amount of Compensation

Later in the 70’s their sentences were commuted from death to life in prison. But it took until 2014 for all three to be fully exonerated. The trio received $18 million from a settlement from the City of Cleveland, but no amount of monetary compensation can make up for the time they lost. “Six of my great aunts died while I was in prison, along with two of my cousins and a best friend. There’s not enough money in the world for me to be alright with that,” says Amaju. 

Near the end of 2014, Amaju became an active member of Witness to Innocence, where he is now the board chairman. According to Witness to Innocence reports, across the US 186 inmates have been exonerated from death row, spending an average of 11.5 years in prison before being freed for crimes they didn’t commit. 

Cases Continue 

“The list is growing all the time”, says Allison Cohen, interim executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions, the official campaign to stop the death penalty in Ohio. Cohen began working with the organization in 2012, and over the last decade “we’ve seen 50 more cases, nationwide,” she explains. “This is not a problem that is going away any time soon.” 

Advances in DNA evidence is one way that innocent people are exonerated. Many cracks in the system exist that put people in prison cells for crimes they didn’t commit. Cohen tells us that “false eyewitnesses, official misconduct, coerced confessions and prosecutors not disclosing evidence that would lead a jury to a different conclusion – known as a Brady Violation – have all played a role in wrongful convictions.” 

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