He Went To Prison For A Murder He Didn't Commit, Then Met The Man Who Put Him There

Jan 5, 2018
Originally published on January 5, 2018 11:45 am

Rickey Jackson spent nearly four decades in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

In May of 1975, when a shopkeeper at a small Cleveland grocery store was slain during a robbery, Eddie Vernon, then 12 years old, served as the main witness in the case. Eddie — who, in fact, hadn't seen anything — says he was pressured into testifying by police.

His testimony led to the convictions of three innocent people, including Rickey, who was 18. The three men initially received the death sentence, but that was reduced to life in prison in 1977. Shortly thereafter, capital punishment in Ohio was ruled unconstitutional.

It wasn't until 2014 that Eddie, at age 52, came forward with the truth. After his release, Rickey reached out to Eddie, and they met up. Three years later at StoryCorps, they sat down together for their first in-depth conversation about what happened.

"I went through 39 years of incarceration because of some things that you put in motion," Rickey, 60, tells Eddie, 55, during their StoryCorps interview in Cleveland. "Throughout the years, did you ever think about me?"

"Yeah," Eddie says. "I wanted to trade places because I said, 'It should be me instead of them.' As I grew up, I was depressed, suicidal. It ate me up so much inside, man."

Rickey says he thought about Eddie, too — and he was full of hatred and loathing.

"I even used to fantasize about ways that I was going to kill you," Rickey says. "We didn't have any physical evidence to bring back into court. It was just you."

Eddie says he finally came forward because he was "tired." "I couldn't live no more like that, Rickey," he says. "I know that so much was taken away from you all, so many years. You all deserved your freedom."

When Eddie walked into the courtroom hoping to amend his testimony, Rickey almost didn't recognize Eddie. "And, when they were cross-examining you ... I saw the little, 12-year-old kid in you," Rickey says. "But I also saw the strength of a man who had come there to do something, and the next thing I know, I'm a free man."

"It was a very courageous thing that you've done," Rickey tells Eddie. So Rickey asked his lawyer if there was a way he could connect with Eddie.

"When I saw you, all that stuff that I used to think about you, the animosity, I could hardly remember," Rickey says. "And, it might have been my imagination, but when we embraced, it felt like you just got lighter in my arms."

Eddie felt it, too. "It took a whole lot off of my shoulders, the weight I'd been carrying for all these years," he says.

"You did your part when it counted most," Rickey says. "You know that?"

"OK," Eddie replies. "Thank you."

"People still find it hard to understand that I forgive you and I think people confuse that with forgetting. I'm not going to ever forget," Rickey says. "But if forgiveness is my way out, I'll gladly take it."

"And I thank God for that, man," Eddie says. "I really do, Rickey."

"You know, after all that we've been through," Rickey says, "to finally be sitting here face-to-face talking about what happened, I'm saying, one man to another, I wish you nothing but the best. Always."

After Eddie's testimony, the two other men convicted of murder also had their convictions cleared. The murder remains unsolved.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. And we start in Cleveland in 1975, when a shopkeeper at a small grocery store was murdered. The main witness in the case was Eddie Vernon, who was 12 years old and had not actually seen anything. Vernon says police pressured him into testifying and then used his account to convict three innocent people. One was a teenager named Rickey Jackson, who served almost four decades in prison. At last, in 2014, witness Eddie Vernon, then aged 52, came forward with the truth. Rickey Jackson was released and reached out to Vernon. And they spoke for StoryCorps.

RICKEY JACKSON: I went through 39 years of incarceration because of some things that you put in motion.

EDDIE VERNON: Right.

JACKSON: Throughout the years, did you ever think about me?

VERNON: Yeah, I wanted to trade places because I said, it should be me instead of them. As I grew up, I was depressed, suicidal. It ate me up so much inside, man.

JACKSON: I used to think about you a lot - hatred, loathing. I even used to fantasize about where it is that I was going to kill you. We didn't have any physical evidence to bring back into court. It was just you.

VERNON: When I came forth, I was tired. I couldn't live no more like that, Rickey. I know that so much was taken away from y'all, so many years. Y'all deserved our freedom.

JACKSON: In court, I hadn't seen you...

VERNON: Since the trial.

JACKSON: 1975.

VERNON: Right.

JACKSON: So when you walked in that courtroom, I saw the little 12-year-old kid in you. But I also saw the strength of a man who had come there to do something. And the next thing I know, I'm a free man. It was a very courageous thing that you've done. So I talked to my lawyer and asked him if there was any chance that you and I could hook up. And when I saw you, all that stuff I used to think about you - the animosity - I could hardly remember. And it might have been my imagination, but when we embraced, it felt like you just got lighter in my arms.

VERNON: It took a whole lot off of my shoulders - the weight I've been carrying for all these years.

JACKSON: I don't know if I ever told you this, but you did your part when it counted most. You know that? You hear me talking to you, man?

VERNON: Yes.

JACKSON: You did your part when it counted most.

VERNON: OK. Thank you.

JACKSON: People still find it hard to understand that I forgive you. And I think people confuse that with forgetting. I'm not going to ever forget.

VERNON: Right.

JACKSON: But if forgiveness is my way out, I'll gladly take it.

VERNON: And I thank God for that, man. I really do, Rickey.

JACKSON: You know, after all that we've been through, to finally be sitting here face to face, talking about what happened, I'm saying one man to another, I wish you nothing but the best always.

INSKEEP: That's Rickey Jackson with Eddie Vernon for StoryCorps in Cleveland. Now, after Eddie's testimony, the two other men convicted in the case also had their sentences overturned. The murder itself remains unsolved.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.